Fry's return helps Beavers sweep Cal
CORVALLIS -- Michael Conforto made his case for a Gold Glove, Jace Fry made his 2013 debut and Oregon State's hitters made Goss Stadium their home run haven in a 6-4 victory over California Sunday.
The slugging Conforto came through with three defensive gems from left field, Fry returned to action fewer than 11 months after Tommy John surgery and Jake Rodriguez, Danny Hayes and Tyler Smith all belted round-trippers as the sixth-ranked Beavers (37-8 overall, 17-4 in Pac-12 play) completed a sweep of the three-game series with the Bears (21-26, 9-15) with their eighth straight victory.
On a day when starting pitcher Ben Wetzler was less than dominant, Oregon State took advantage of temperatures in the high 80s and a nice wind flowing toward right field to play long ball with its first three-homer game of the season.
"I enjoy winning," OSU coach Pat Casey said. "If you have to hit home runs to win, it's OK.
"You could probably play in this ballpark 10 years and only see about 10 days like this. (The park) usually doesn't play that way. But when it gets warm, those winds blow from the east and give (the ball) little push toward right."
Wetzler, the best pitcher in the Pac-12 over the past month, allowed 11 hits -- 10 singles and a double -- in 6 1/3 innings. The junior left-hander walked none, though, and struck out a career-high 10 batters on a day when he fought off nearly every Cal rally.
"You have to when you don't have your best stuff," said Wetzler, who improved to 5-1 this season. "Funny, that's the best I've ever felt in the bullpen (warming up). Once I got out there, it almost felt like I was a power pitcher again. I got shellshocked real quick and had to go back and just try to make pitches."
The Bears had managed a total of five hits in losses against OSU hurlers Matt Boyd and Andrew Moore the previous two days.
"They squared it up and came out with a totally different approach today," Wetzler said. "They got in a lot of deep counts and weren't getting themselves out early like they did the last two days."
Fry's preseason target date to come back from elbow surgery last June was a May 21 non-conference date against Oregon at Corvallis. The sophomore southpaw -- OSU's ace a year ago -- was medically cleared for duty last week, but a bout of the flu delayed his return.
When Fry strode in from the bullpen with two out in the eighth inning, a runner on second base and the Beavers clinging to a 4-2 lead, many in the sellout crowd of 3,121 rose to greet him with a loud ovation. When the Southridge High grad -- making the first relief appearance of his career -- induced Cal's Nick Halamandaris to a ground-out to end the inning, the fans were back on their feet.
Fry returned in the ninth frame but walked Cal's Chris Paul on four pitches, giving way to closer Scott Schultz. As he made his way to OSU dugout, Fry exchanged a handshake and hug with nearly every member of the OSU team.
"I felt so good for him to get back on the mound in front of these fans," Smith said.
"I think we were more excited than he was," Conforto said. "I got goosebumps when he came in. Such a tough surgery to come back from it's amazing he's back already."
"It was great to see him out there and see the fans give him an ovation," Wetzler said. "He has put in the work and gotten back months ahead of a lot of people who go through the same surgery. It's special to see."
"Thank God it was warm out; made it pretty easy for me," Fry said. The elbow "felt good. It was nice of the fans, the support that was going on out there. I was happy to be able to pitch in front of our own fans."
OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie said he and Casey debated whether to bring Fry back for the ninth inning. It was a dry run for a pitcher the Beavers feel can help then out of the bullpen through the rest of the regular season and in the NCAA playoffs.
"He got (Halamandaris) out," Yeskie said. "We wanted to see if we could get him back up again, because we've been trying to sit him down and get him back up again. He has been comfortable doing that, and he's going to have to do that down the stretch (of the season). He'll have to finish an inning, come back out and start another inning.
"It wasn't what we were looking for on the tail end, but he did the job on the front end when the game was more in doubt. And he got some of those butterflies out, which he had whether he admits it or not, because he's a competitor. He wants to go out there and perform at his highest level.
"For him to get back as fast as he has, it's unfair for anybody to have expectations that he's on top of his game. But if somebody is going to will himself to get as close as possible, it's going to be Jace."
Boyd, Moore and Wetzler seem locked into the three starting spots for now, but Fry's availability deepens Oregon State's staff as a potential weapon in the bullpen.
"I know I'm not going to be pitching any more than three innings (in a game) and once a weekend for now," Fry said. "But there's no holding back anymore. The arm's feeling good. I don't even think about it anymore."
A year ago, Conforto racked up a plethora of honors in leading the Pac-12 in RBIs (a school-record 76) and tying in home runs (13), including second-team All-American, national Freshman Hitter of the Year and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
The 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore left-hander is hitting a solid .327 with a .442 on-base percentage this season, but has only one home run since March 17.
Conforto had a double and single Sunday, but he made his presence known even more in left field. In the third inning, he bobbled a ball hit his way but recovered in time to throw out Devin Pearson trying to advance from first base to third. In the fourth, Conforto made a diving catch of a line drive off the bat of Grant Diede. And in the sixth, Conforto made the play of the game, throwing out Pearson trying to score from second on a base hit to left. Conforto's on-the-money one-hopper arrived at the plate at the same time as Pearson, and somehow catcher Rodriguez hung on after applying the tag.
"I knew it was going to be close," Conforto said. "I thought if I could pick the ball cleanly, maybe I had a shot. I rared back and threw it as hard as I could. Luckily it was on target. Jake made a great play picking it and blocking (the plate). He's a warrior -- a brick wall."
Conforto is hoping to regain his power stroke. In the meantime, Casey is glad his star is not letting it affect his play in the field.
"Sometimes that gets overlooked," the OSU skipper said. "Michael's made a lot of great defensive plays for us recently. He's the most accurate arm we have in the outfield. It's nice to see."
Oregon State remains in a virtual tie with Oregon (19-5) atop the Pac-12. The Beavers admit they are keeping track of the Ducks, who play host to them in a crucial Civil War series May 17-19 at PK Park.
"It's big to get a sweep when we know they're right behind us," said Smith, the senior shortstop who is hitting .314.
The Beavers have three three-game Pac-12 series left -- at Stanford next weekend, at Oregon and at home against Washington State. The Ducks have series with Oregon State and at Utah to close the regular season. UCLA is in third place in the Pac-12 at 14-7.
"I think it will come down to (the Civil War) series," Smith said. "We have four games against them (including a non-league affair on May 21), but the three Pac-12 games are going to be huge.
"We just have to keep playing our game. Three conference series left. Every one of them is huge."
"Our mindset is, we're in control," Conforto said. "We have control of what we're going to do. All we have to do is keep winning and we'll stay ahead."