CORVALLIS – The last time Sam Tweedt pitched in a game for Oregon State it was in the College World Series, an experience he said “had always been a dream.”
Tweedt, a redshirt junior from South Salem High School, and his teammates begin their quest for a return trip to Omaha and the CWS on Friday in the 2018 season opener against New Mexico in Surprise, Ariz.
Although the Beavers fell short of claiming the school’s third national crown last season, the memory of Omaha still resonates for Tweedt, who is part of the Beavers’ four-man starting rotation.
“Just competing with the best of the best is really what it’s all about,” Tweedt said.
And when it comes to college baseball OSU is among the best of the best, a perennial national championship contender.
The Beavers are ranked No. 2 in every preseason poll, the unanimous pick to repeat as conference champions in the Pac-12 coaches’ poll and coming off a school-record 56-win season that included two, 23-game winning streaks.
How can OSU possibly eclipse last season’s success?
OSU coach Pat Casey understands why his team has received preseason hype, but he noted that it’s important to keep outside expectations at bay.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back. Nobody wants to be picked to win it, that’s the old bull’s-eye thing,” said Casey, who led OSU to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
“But for these guys, I don’t think they care. I told them one of the things you can do is go stealth man, stay off reading all the nonsense and get into your own world and play the game.”
And no one in recent memory wearing the orange and black has played the game better than junior second baseman Nick Madrigal, an All-American last season and a projected top 10 pick in the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft by Baseball America.
Madrigal, the Beavers’ only captain this season, hit .380 in 2017 and was named Pac-12 Player of the Year. He is among six returning position players who started last year.
Add the nucleus of last season’s pitching staff returning, which led the nation with a 1.93 earned run average, and you have the ingredients of a team built for Omaha.
“There’s a lot of guys back that were on that team, so we understand everything we went through — the great times, but even the bad times,” Madrigal said.
The “bad times” included ending the season with back-to-back losses to LSU as the No. 1 national seed with a berth in the CWS championship series on the line, and the late-season loss of ace pitcher Luke Heimlich.
Heimlich did not play in the Super Regional against Vanderbilt and did not accompany the team to Omaha after news broke in early June that he pleaded guilty to a single count of molesting a 6-year-old female family member when he was a teenager in Puyallup, Washington.
Heimlich, who was 11-1 with a nation’s best 0.76 ERA last season, was not selected in the 2017 MLB Draft after being projected as an early-round pick. He has returned for his senior year to anchor a starting rotation that also includes Tweedt, junior Bryce Fehmel and sophomore Grant Gambrell.
“He’s gone through a lot, but he’s ready to play baseball,” Tweedt said.
Heimlich has declined interview requests since the Beavers began preseason practice Jan. 26.
OSU has taken advantage of unusually dry weather and has been able to hold all but one of its practices at Goss Stadium.
On paper, the Beavers are loaded.
They may have the nation’s premier middle infield with Madrigal, junior shortstop Cadyn Grenier and sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman. Senior third baseman Michael Gretler also returns, and if he moves to first base, sophomore infielder Andy Armstrong from West Salem could get the start at third, Casey said.
The starting outfield features senior Jack Anderson in left, junior Steven Kwan in center and junior Trevor Larnach in right.
Sophomore Jake Mulholland is in the closer’s role.
“Once we really lace ‘em up and go out and play, that’s when we’ll find out who’s got it and who doesn’t,” Armstrong said. “When it’s all said and done you’ve gotta go out there and prove yourself.”
Note: Pitcher Drew Rasmussen, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft (No. 31 overall), is enrolled at OSU. A redshirt junior, Rasmussen did not sign with the Rays after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the off-season. He is not on the Beavers' roster.
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/ghorowitz
Oregon State baseball
Coach: Pat Casey, 24th season
2017 record: 56-6, 27-3 Pac-12 (first place). Tied for fourth in College World Series.
2018 season opener: noon Friday vs. New Mexico, Surprise, Ariz.
Key position players (2017 stats): 2B Nick Madrigal (.380, four HRs, 40 RBI, 16 stolen bases), SS Cadyn Grenier (.275, five HR, 37 RBI), 3B Michael Gretler (.301, five HR, 33 RBI), C Adley Rutschman (.234, two HR, 33 RBI), CF Steven Kwan (.330, one HR, 18 RBI), RF Trevor Larmach (.303, three HR, 48 RBI), LF Jack Anderson (.281, one HR, 30 RBI)
Key pitchers (2017 stats): Luke Heimlich (11-1, 0.76 ERA, 128 strikeouts), Jake Mulholland (7-1, 1.20, six saves), Bryce Fehmel (6-3, 3.87), Sam Tweedt (3-0, 2.50), Brandon Eisert (5-0, 2.31, four saves)