Jake Pfennigs joined the Oregon State baseball program last fall knowing the history as well as the expectations of each individual to compete at a high level.
The first-year player didn’t perform as well as he’d hoped when the Beavers opened their schedule in February in Arizona.
Pfennigs is one of four Oregon State freshmen being asked to contribute on a regular basis this spring. The transition from high school to college baseball can be a difficult one even for the most talented players.
“As the season goes on I’m trying to get better, trying to meet those expectations still,” he said, noting that he’s improved his command and an ability to throw all his different pitches. “I’ve gotten stronger, so my velocity has maintain throughout the year.”
Infielders Jake Dukart, Jake Harvey and Matthew Gretler are also seeing significant playing time in their first year out of high school.
Dukart has played in 29 games, Harvey 28 and Gretler 23. Harvey has the most starts among the three with 23 entering this weekend’s Civil War series at Oregon in Eugene.
Gretler leads the trio with a .269 batting average. Gretler’s brother, Michael Gretler, played at Oregon State and was a member of the 2018 national championship team.
Harvey is hitting .267 with four stolen bases and four sacrifices. Both have a home run. Dukart is at .222 with 11 RBIs, tops of the three.
“I think they’ve really responded well and they’ve grow up,” OSU interim coach Pat Bailey said. “They’re starting to find out that the pitching at this level is just a touch bit different than what it is at the high school level. I think they’ve really matured as they’ve gone through the season.”
Beavers catcher Adley Rutschman remembers coming in as a freshman two years ago and the pressure to perform. It can be hard to handle, he said.
Rutschman, projected to be the top pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, wasn’t the player he is now two years ago. He batted .234 in 2017.
Veterans can give positive reinforcement to let their younger teammates know they’re heading down the right path.
“Whenever you provide them with some perspective on how you dealt with it as a freshman, or just continuing to encourage them and tell them how good of a job they’re doing. I think that always helps,” Rutschman said.
When asked if he expected to play Dukart, Harvey and Gretler as much they have, Bailey said “no” with a chuckle.
“I always tell our guys, we don’t determine the lineup, they do,” the coach said.
Bailey said he saw in January scrimmages that Harvey would have started right away, but he got sick and lost as much as 15 pounds in a three-week period. Harvey didn’t play much early in the season as he got his strength back.
Dukart also played well in those scrimmages and started several games early in the season. But he didn’t hit well once games started counting and was relegated to a lesser role.
“So I just told Jake, keep working hard, you’re going to get an opportunity again. He got his opportunity,” Bailey said. “The other day (Sunday, against Oklahoma State) he went 0 for 5 and I thought four of the five at-bats … were really good at-bats.”
Pfennigs is 1-1 with a 4.88 earned-run average in 24⅓ innings while appearing in 14 games this season.
He says for a pitcher, the biggest hurdle in his transition to the college game has been facing more talented hitters.
“They’re just all solid, one through nine,” Pfennigs said. “Any DI hitter can hit a fastball down the middle, so you’ve got to locate your pitches. It’s just a different game at this level.”
He pitched in three games last week. He struck out five and walked one while allowing two hits and one earned run in 3⅔ combined innings.
The right-hander from Post Falls, Idaho, has had some difficult outings, including midweek starts against Portland and Nevada, but is finding more consistency.
“His last three times he’d thrown for us, I just went wow. That’s really, really good stuff, especially from a freshman,” Bailey said, adding that Pfennigs’ fastballs are landing in the low 90s. “He’s really improving from week to week, He’s just getting better and better.”
Oregon State senior pitcher Bryce Fehmel said his team’s freshmen in general are hard workers, they compete and that no more could be asked of them.
Of Pfennigs, Fehmel said he saw his teammate work through an early rough start but come through a better player.
“Ever since then he’s been nails on the back end of the bullpen whenever he comes into a game,” Fehmel said. “So it’s cool to see. He works hard, so he deserves it.”
Pre-game notes released before every Oregon State contest list the projected starting pitchers for the game or series ahead.
The notes sent out Thursday morning show some significant changes to the rotation. Fehmel is listed as the starter for Friday and Dylan Pearce for Saturday with a Sunday starter against the Ducks to be announced.
Fehmel, a right-hander has been the Saturday (or second-day) starter for all seven Pac-12 series this season plus last weekend’s nonconference series against Oklahoma State. Brandon Eisert, a junior lefty, has started the series opener the last seven times.
Grant Gambrell, a junior right-hander, started six straight series finales before sitting out last weekend to get rest. Gambrell lasted a career-best 8⅓ innings in a home win against Washington State a week earlier.
Bailey said Tuesday he expects Gambrell to pitch this weekend. Pearce, a senior righty, got his first career Division I start against Oklahoma State, allowing eight hits and five earned runs in five innings.