The 'Middle-Of-Nowhere' Outfield

May 15, 2003

By Kip CarlsonOregon State University sports information

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Combined hometown population for Arizona State's starting outfield? 1,359,753.

Population for Stanford's starting outfield? 337,123.

Population for UCLA's starting outfield? 1,444,488.

Population for Oregon State's starting outfield? 7,841.

Now that's priceless.

You can't overestimate the value of Seth Pietsch, Aaron Mathews and Jacoby Ellsbury to the Beavers this spring. OSU's starting outfield, from foul pole to foul pole, ranks among the best on the West Coast and that talent was found in places little-known outside Oregon.

Or maybe even within Oregon.

'I'd figured I'd play with guys from Oregon, because most of the players here are from Oregon,' Pietsch said. 'But I didn't think they'd be from two places I hadn't even heard of, just like where I'm from - nobody's heard of that, either. You tell people where we're from, and people have no idea where that is.'

So let's clear up that matter regarding the Beavers' middle-of-nowhere outfield.

Pietsch, the junior leftfielder, hails from Wilderville (pop. 927), which is located in the hills west of Grants Pass in Southern Oregon; sophomore centerfielder Mathews is from John Day (pop. 1,836), tucked in the mountains of Northeastern Oregon; and freshman rightfielder Ellsbury is from Madras (pop. 5,078), on the high desert of Central Oregon north of Bend.

'You never know where you're going to find a player who can play, whether it's a small town or a large city or whatever,' said Bill Harper, a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies for over 30 years. 'You can find people all over that want to play. A lot of people in the big leagues come from small towns.

'When you get kids from your own state who come in and play like those players are playing, it's great. You go out to watch them play and they do a great job. I've watched them a lot, and they're as good an outfield as you want to see in the Pac-10, that I've seen.'

Pietsch batted .348 this spring with 12 homers, four triples, 11 doubles and 40 RBIs; he was among the Pac-10 leaders most of the season in total bases and slugging percentage. He was All-Pac-10 honorable mention last season when he led the league in doubles and was second in triples, and he's made fielding another of his strengths.

Mathews batted .307 this season with three homers, three doubles and 21 RBIs despite missing nearly two months of play after being hit by a pitch in the second game of the season. After coming back in April, he earned Pac-10 Player of the Week honors. Last season, Mathews earned Freshman All-America honorable mention from Collegiate Baseball newspaper as he batted .338.

Ellsbury batted .330 this season with seven homers, three triples, 10 doubles, 33 RBIs and 14 stolen bases; he was among the Pac-10 leaders in stolen bases much of the season. Ellsbury played centerfield while Mathews was sidelined and made two over-the-fence catches to rob foes of homers. He was drafted in the 23rd round by Tampa Bay last spring but chose to attend OSU.

All three played for Class 3A high schools, a step below Oregon's largest classification. Pietsch played at Hidden Valley, Mathews at Grant Union (which has since stepped down to Class 2A), and Ellsbury at Madras. The members of the trio all possess speed, outstanding defensive ability and potent bats.

'All three of them have some real athleticism to them and that was attractive to us,' OSU head coach Pat Casey said. 'Usually, you can get the guy who's a real good athlete and do some things baseball-wise, skill-wise, to make them better. I think we've got the fastest outfield in the Pac-10, and it makes it kind of fun for us to feel like they're going to go catch most of the baseballs and make some great plays.'

For Casey, it's also been a joy to watch the three develop.

'Usually, when they come from the smaller places, they don't have a tremendous baseball background; they usually play more than one sport because they're such good athletes,' Casey said. 'It's fun for us to develop them in baseball and the whole process of getting them on the road to improvement, and the challenge of playing in the Pac-10 - it's the greatest conference in America and those guys have been outstanding with their growth together. I think they have a feel that they want to be the best outfield in the conference, and that's good.

'They sure work hard, and they've developed both physically and mentally, and now they're making themselves prospects for the next level.'

So how do you find these guys hidden away in some relatively remote parts of the state?

'Just scouring the high schools in Oregon looking for good athletes,' Casey said. 'And word of mouth: 'Hey, there's a kid who can really run over at Madras, and there's a kid who's got some power down near Grants Pass, and there's a kid at John Day who's a great athlete who hasn't played a lot of baseball but is a great football player ...''You start calling them on the phone, and you start liking their makeup, and you go from there. We were fortunate to get all three of them, and now I think we have the best outfield in the conference.'

It's a big jump, though, going from the Skyline Conference or the Greater Oregon League to the Pacific-10 in one season.

'Physically, I think I had the ability to come up and do it,' Mathews said. 'Mentally, for the outfield, I had it. But the hitting, and the pitching I had to adjust from ... I had to adjust from a 75 to 80-mph fastball to a 91-, 93-, 95-mph fastball. It's a big jump.

'Confidence, I have that. It's just a different world. From playing at (high school foe) Burns to a playing at a new spring training stadium in Arizona - it's pretty fun.'

Wilderville, John Day and Madras aren't the sort of places where an aspiring ballplayer is going to pop into a Grand Slam USA batting cage in the dead of winter, or find much in the way of high-priced summer traveling teams. There's the high school season, the American Legion season ... and football and basketball seasons.

'Where I come from, there's not much baseball,' said Pietsch, whose offseason workouts tended to include buddies Mike Sammis, who now pitches at Lane Community College, and Tyler Mason, now a senior at Hidden Valley. 'Us three were the only people that did anything with baseball year-round - that was it. We'd go hit, try to stay in shape and stuff like that all year round. It's not like we had a good facility to work out in; we'd just make our own, rain or shine.'

The baseball environments in the hometowns varied, though.

'In Grant County, they do have nice baseball facilities,' Mathews said. 'John Day is just a baseball town. I grew up with that. But really, the type of kids I played with, and the type of kids the other guys played with, like Arizona State's team, that type of thing ...

'I had to really step up when I got older; I think it came with me competing with myself. I wanted to be the best, and I think that's a big part in it.'

Coming from out-of-the-way places - and representing their home state - also provide the three a little more to play for.

'I think it does,' Mathews said. 'Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to come to Oregon State. I always thought about that - I'd be playing for the state of Oregon, for Oregon State University. That's one of the best things I've accomplished in my life.'

Added Ellsbury: 'Every time I come out there, I take great pride in playing for Oregon State. I'm just blessed to be here. It is pretty cool for smaller-town kids from Oregon to be playing in the Pac-10.'

For Pietsch, there's also the matter of being in the Pac-10, taking on the nation's very best, and showing you belong.

'You're always overlooked, and when you finally get a chance to play, it doesn't matter where you're from - you're either going to be able to play, or you're not going to be able to,' Pietsch said. 'It doesn't matter if you're from Afghanistan; if you can play baseball, it doesn't matter. You can just go out and play, and that's what we do.'

Harper, the Phillies' scout, agrees that small-town players are more likely to feel they've got something to prove than products of the large, warm-weather population centers like Southern California or Arizona.

'There's no question about that,' Harper said. 'That's why I really admire these outfielders here at Oregon State, how they have presented themselves on the field ... they're young players. They're not that old, and I admire the way they go at the game and the way they play and the instincts they have to play the game.'

The three aren't the only Oregon small-town products who have played significant roles for OSU this spring.

Freshman second baseman Chris Kunda, who is batting .266 with five homers, three triples, 12 doubles and 21 RBIs, is from Philomath (pop. 3,838), located a few miles west of Corvallis. Philomath is also the hometown of former OSU pitcher Mike Thurman, who has pitched in the Major Leagues for the Montreal Expos and New York Yankees since 1997. Junior first baseman/designated hitter Levi Webber, batting .291 with two homers and 13 RBIs, is from Glide (pop. 1,690), east of Roseburg in Southern Oregon.

'It's amazing,' Ellsbury said. 'You go to USC or Stanford, and flying in, seeing the huge amount, population-wise, that they can get kids from ... It's amazing to come from a small town and get the opportunity to play at Oregon State and play in Division I.'

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