Pat Casey vividly remembers when preseason outdoor practices were a rarity.
Before Goss Stadium received an artificial infield prior to the 2007 baseball season, opening day would often represent Oregon State’s first opportunity to play on an actual diamond.
“And especially back when you used to start on February first, because even though you’d have some dry days, the ground would be soaked,” the Beavers’ 24th-year coach recalled under brilliant sunshine on Tuesday afternoon. The unseasonably warm and dry conditions of the past two weeks have limited OSU to just one indoor practice in 2018.
“The turf has changed our world, but to be outside virtually every day since we started practice has been amazing.”
While precipitation is expected to hit the mid-valley this week, even more sunshine is in the extended forecast for the second-ranked Beavers.
Thursday morning, OSU will fly south for an 11-day road trip to open the 2018 season. The defending Pac-12 champions kick things off at noon Friday against New Mexico in Surprise, Arizona.
The Beavers are scheduled to play eight games between Friday and Feb. 25 before returning home for a four-game series with Hartford the following week.
“I think excited is an understatement,” junior outfielder Trevor Larnach said of the Arizona trip. “We’ve been working together for these past six months and it feels like we just got back off the plane from Omaha. I can remember every moment of it, but we’re ready to go.”
Larnach’s sentiments appear to be universal among OSU’s large group of returning players.
The record-breaking accomplishments of 2017 — a 56-6 overall mark and a College World Series appearance — should be appreciated. But the focus needs to be on the present.
“Our goal is to finish it off,” Bryce Fehmel said.
Fehmel, a junior right-hander, will start one of the Beavers’ first four games in Arizona, Casey confirmed Tuesday. Luke Heimlich, Grant Gambrell and Sam Tweedt are also slated to start opening weekend.
Heimlich, Fehmel and Tweedt were all in OSU’s rotation at the beginning of 2017. Gambrell, a hard-throwing righty, was 1-0 with a 2.93 ERA in 15⅓ innings of relief as a freshman last spring.
“Some of it was what they did last year, some of it was where we feel we can get some longevity out of those guys,” Casey said of picking the starters.
Heimlich, the reigning Pac-12 pitcher of the year, compiled an 11-1 record with a Division I-leading 0.76 ERA as a junior 2017. The lefty struck out 128 and walked just 22 in 118⅓ innings.
Fehmel was 6-3 with a 3.87 ERA a season ago in 81⅓ innings. He started 14 games, trailing only Jake Thompson (19) and Heimlich (16).
Tweedt, a junior righty, received six starts last year and was 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA in 36 total innings. He missed the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“I feel strong, I feel great,” Tweedt said. “The body is good and I feel like I am ready to have a big role this year and throw a lot of innings.”
Sophomore lefty Jake Mulholland and freshman righty Kevin Abel were also in the mix to start, Casey said.
Mulholland was sensational in relief last spring, going 7-1 with a 1.20 ERA in 52⅓ innings. Abel is a highly-touted prospect from San Diego.
“I think Mulholland can be a starter,” Casey said. “We are starting to lengthen him out a bit to give him that flexibility.
“Abel is another guy that we may use. We are just trying to protect him a little bit, and if it works out that he starts I think he’ll do fine.”
Casey confirmed that catcher Adley Rutschman, infielders Nick Madrigal, Cadyn Grenier and Michael Gretler and outfielders Steven Kwan, Jack Anderson and Larnach will be in the opening day lineup. All players were regulars a season ago.
Larnach, who has primarily been a designated hitter for OSU, is expected to start in right field with Anderson moving over to play left. Kwan will remain in center.
Madrigal and Grenier are exchangeable up the middle while Gretler can play third or first base depending on the matchup. Andy Armstrong (third), Tyler Malone (first) and Zak Taylor (first, catcher) are all in the mix.
“I know there’s a lot of depth on this team,” said Madrigal, last year’s Pac-12 player and defensive player of the year. “Coach Casey is going to have a tough decision with who plays where, who plays what, but I think it will all work itself out.”
While Casey would not give specifics on the batting order, the middle of the lineup will include Madrigal, Rutschman, Larnach and Gretler.
Larnach is confident Kwan will hit leadoff.
“Just from how Steve has performed last summer and spring at the spot, I am willing to bet he’ll be the leadoff,” Larnach said. “He does a hell of a job. He works counts and seems like he gets on every single time he’s up.
“Nick is debatably the best hitter in the country, so I’m willing to bet he’ll be either two or three, maybe even four.”