CORVALLIS — Steven Kwan was beginning to experience a hint of boredom.
Following an active spring and summer chock-full of baseball, the Oregon State outfielder returned to his Bay Area home for some much-needed rest and recuperation. But it didn’t take long for Kwan to get antsy.
“I kind of had too long of a break,” said Kwan, who played for the Cape Cod League’s Wareham Gatemen following the Beavers’ College World Series appearance. Wareham’s season ended Aug. 9.
“It’s easy to be so unproductive when you go back home. You’ve got your momma doing everything for you. I was just like ‘man, I’ve got to go somewhere.’”
Luckily for Kwan, more baseball was right around the corner. OSU, which is coming off one of the greatest seasons in college history, began its fall practice slate earlier this month.
The Beavers are set to open the 2018 campaign on Feb. 16 in Surprise, Arizona.
“Ever since last season ended, it’s been on everyone’s mind to get back to Omaha and kind of finish something that we started,” said infielder Nick Madrigal, the reigning Pac-12 player of the year. “It’s a new year though and we still have a long way to go.”
OSU finished the 2017 season 56-6 overall, matching Texas’ 1975 team for the fourth-best winning percentage of the CWS era (1950-present). But the Beavers suffered their first two-game losing streak of the year in Omaha, falling to eventual-champion LSU in the bracket finals.
It was a bitter end to a magical run for OSU, which captured the Pac-12 title by six games over Stanford. The Beavers came up three wins shy of a third national title.
“My job was to make sure that the guys understood what they accomplished, but also allow them to think that we all wanted more, and that’s OK too,” coach Pat Casey said. “But I don’t want them to think that they weren’t successful in what they did because they were phenomenal last season. They just did a great job and they came out and played like champions every game.
“I’ve never seen a team that found a way to win every close game, and the record reflects what it is. It was a really terrific bunch of guys that got together that had a passion for winning, a passion for working and a passion to play the game of baseball. They were awesome.”
Kwan regularly received comments from curious observers during the Cape Cod League season. Many wanted to know how a college baseball team could win 56 of 62 games while playing in one of the country’s top conferences.
As the pain from the disappointing finish slowly dissipated, Kwan began to reflect on the historic season.
“People would come up to you and say ‘wow, you guys had a great year,’” Kwan said. “And I kept hearing that and hearing that, and eventually you’d sit back and just think ‘we kind of did have a great year, you’re right.’ It’s tough to not be able to say that we finished it out, so we’ve got a big goal at the end of this year.”
A strong candidate to be D1Baseball’s preseason No. 1, OSU effectively returns seven starting position players and a diverse group of pitchers that contributed to the team’s Division I-leading ERA of 1.93.
The Beavers will be strong and experienced up the middle with Adley Rutschman at catcher, Kwan in center and the interchangeable Cadyn Grenier and Madrigal at second at shortstop. Also back is third baseman Michael Gretler while Trevor Larnach, Jack Anderson and Kyle Nobach — who redshirted in 2017 following knee surgery — return in the outfield.
Sophomore Tyler Malone, a candidate to replace KJ Harrison at first base, had offseason shoulder surgery and is out for fall ball. Casey said Malone will be ready for opening weekend.
Christian Donahue, who started 40 games — 38 in left field — a season ago, is now in the Chicago Cubs organization. Infielder/outfielder Andy Atwood (Texas-Rio Grande Valley), outfielder Elliott Cary (Oklahoma City University) and pitchers Scotland Church (Lubbock Christian), Tommy Paul (Point Loma Nazarene) and Mitch Hickey (UC San Diego) all transferred.
Right-handed pitcher Drew Rasmussen, who was drafted 31st overall by the Tampa Bay Rays but did not sign, will miss the upcoming season following a second Tommy John surgery.
“His presence around here is still very impactful, and I don’t think the kids realize that until that guy is gone,” pitching coach Nate Yeskie said of Rasmussen. “When Andrew Moore was gone, our kids realized the impact and I don’t think they saw it as much when he was still here. He was still a pretty heavy presence when he was around, but once he left they really saw what it was that he embodied.
“Some of our kids are sensing that a little bit because (Rasumussen’s) not in drills with us. But he’s there in the weight room and he’s out here trying to help guys as much as he can.”
The Beavers bring back four pitchers with starting experience in Bryce Fehmel, Sam Tweedt, Jordan Britton and Luke Heimlich, the 2016 Pac-12 pitcher of the year. Freshmen Kevin Abel and Nathan Burns along with returning bullpen arms Grant Gambrell, Mitchell Verburg, Brandon Eisert and Jake Mulholland are also candidates to start, Yeskie said.
Fehmel, who went 6-3 with a 3.87 ERA in 15 appearances (14 starts) last year, stayed in Corvallis over the summer with several of his fellow pitchers, including Mulholland, Gambrell, Verburg, Eisert and Abel.
“We all had a great offseason,” Fehmel said. “I think we all put on 5 or 10 pounds from lifting, so we are definitely stronger.”
In his first season as a full-time starter, Heimlich finished 11-1 with a 0.76 ERA as a junior in 2016. The left-hander struck out 128 with just 22 walks in 118? innings.
Heimlich sat out the Corvallis Super Regional and CWS following a report detailing his juvenile record. He is back with the team for his senior season.
While a sub-1.00 ERA is unlikely to be repeated, Yeskie believes Heimlich will continue to refine his skills.
“Each kid develops at a different pace,” Yeskie said. “I would certainly anticipate that there’s going to be some things that he’ll improve upon this year. But the numbers, they are what they are at the end.
“I never thought I’d see it again after what (Ben) Wetzler did when he reeled out a 0.78 (ERA in 2014). I quit worrying about the numbers a long time ago; the only number I care about is the number in the wins column.”