Sam Gaviglio admits it. At first, the former Ashland High star was a bit in awe of the whole Division I baseball thing.
And coming from a small town in southern Oregon, how could he not be.
Bleachers that go up and up. Cross-country road trips. Muscle-bound pro prospects strutting to the batter's box nightly.
"All of us freshmen, when we came in we were like, 'Wow, I can't believe we're playing with these guys right now," Gaviglio recalls.
A year after verbally committing to Oregon State, Gaviglio is not only playing with those guys, he's making some of them look foolish.
Heading into tonight's three-game-series opener at UCLA, the 6-foot-1 freshman pitcher is tied for the team lead in wins at 5-1, is carrying a 3.77 ERA and boasts a 3.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Just twelve games into the Beavers' Pac-10 schedule, Gaviglio has already established himself as a reliable option for the 2006 and 2007 College World Series champions.
"I know exactly what I'm going to get from him and that makes things easier from a coach's standpoint," OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. "I think he's probably one of the top three or four guys as far as appearances goes, and that's going to continue. He's going to keep getting those opportunities."
Gaviglio ranks third on the team in appearances and fourth in innings pitched (28 2-3), both high numbers for a true freshman. Yeskie is confident in Gaviglio's ability to handle the pressure, however, and shows it in his handling of the hard-throwing right-hander.
Take Gaviglio's most recent outing. On Saturday, as Oregon State's 4-0 lead over USC evaporated, Yeskie decided it was Gaviglio time.
The hunch paid off. Gaviglio coaxed a fly out with the bases loaded to keep the game tied 4-all, and the Beavers went on to win 5-4 in the bottom of the 10th.
That was only the latest in what has become a series of pressure-cookers that Gaviglio has been thrust into. He pitched the last two innings of an 11-inning win over California on April 5; he threw 6 1-3 scoreless innings in a 4-2 loss to Missouri State on March 15; and he gave up the game-winning hit in a much-hyped civil war showdown against Oregon on March 28.
In the latter game, Gaviglio could be forgiven. Ten months prior he was overpowering the likes of Mazama and Eagle Point in front of a handful of spectators, mostly family and friends, at North Mountain Park. Against the Ducks, he took the mound in the bottom of the ninth surrounded by 15,540 spectators crammed into PGE Park in Portland.
"(Yeskie) explained to me before we started playing games that it's just another baseball game, so go out there and pitch," Gaviglio said of performing in front of big crowds. "It's hard to explain, but it's definitely different. Now, when I throw bullpen I can relax. (In games), I definitely feel the pressure."
It's a feeling Gaviglio has grown accustomed to.
"It makes me better," he said, "because now I've been in some big situations and I'm used to it. It's not a big shock."
Gaviglio's fast start hasn't surprised Yeskie, who early on identified the young gun as a rare breed — a true freshman who could handle the workload and the stresses usually reserved for upperclassmen.
Gaviglio's evolution from high school standout to Division I hurler began in the fall, when the Beavers used intrasquad scrimmages to get an early indication of strengths and weaknesses. Yeskie estimated that Gaviglio pitched 30 innings in the fall and "continued to impress every time out." His statistics were among the best on the team, but what impressed his pitching coach most was Gaviglio's demeanor.
It was that quiet confidence that helped draw the Beavers to Gaviglio in the first place. That was especially the case during Ashland's state championship run in 2008, when Gaviglio went 13-0, including a victory in the state championship game.
"He always threw strikes and never seem to get too excitable or emotional," said Yeskie, who estimated that the Beavers watched Gaviglio pitch five or six times for Ashland. "He always seemed to keep his cool and really control the game."
Gaviglio cleared another hurdle when he continued to thrive under the watchful eye of OSU coaches during fall ball, prompting a meeting that set the tone for this season.
Recognizing what he had, Yeskie told Gaviglio to think big.
"I said, 'You're not a freshman anymore,'" Yeskie recalls. "'You don't act like a freshman, you don't pitch like a freshman, so don't go out there and think you can't compete and think you can't get people out.'"
Gaviglio made his first collegiate appearance Feb. 27 against Missouri, entering the game in the fifth inning with the Beavers nursing a 5-3 lead. He struck out the first batter he faced on four pitches and finished the inning three batters later with another strikeout.
Things got a little rocky after that. Missouri scored three runs on three hits in the sixth and Gaviglio didn't come out for the seventh.
"It was kind of like a blur just because of the adrenaline," Gaviglio said. "The first inning went pretty smooth and the second one didn't, but each time I pitch I kind of get more comfortable."
Part of that comfort level has to do with an unexpected switch Gaviglio made only days before the team's Feb. 20 season-opener at Tennessee. At the urging of Yeskie, Gaviglio ditched his curve ball in favor of a slider. Two scrimmages later he had it down, and now throws it regularly during games.
"There's no reason to throw the (curve) because this one has more action and when he misses he misses down," Yeskie said.
It's still a work in progress, however — Gaviglio has given up two home runs this season, both off the slider.
Gaviglio also throws a fastball that has been clocked at 92 mph and a change-up that's been known to twist batters into knots. It's a combination that's proven to be tough to handle. Opponents bat just .218 against Gaviglio — that ranks No. 1 on the team among pitchers with at least 20 innings of work.
"As the only freshman pitcher coming in, he has handled himself well "¦ ," junior catcher Ryan Ortiz told The Oregonian. "He's got a nice two-seam fastball that sinks, he's got a slider that he can get righties out with, and he probably has the best feel of anyone on the team for throwing a change-up."
The next step for Gaviglio is building up his body so that he can handle more innings. Though he's been used as a reliever this season, the Beavers expect Gaviglio to develop into a starter.
To prepare his body for that transition Gaviglio has been hitting the weight room, and the hard work has already paid off. About eight months after joining the Beavers in the fall, Gaviglio says he's added 20 pounds of muscle and is now a lean 190 pounds. His goal is to get up to 200 pounds by the end of the summer.
He won't just be lifting in the offseason. Gaviglio already is slated to pitch for the Corvallis Knights, a West Coast League squad based minutes away from the Beavers' training facility that plays a game nearly every day from early June through early August.
Of course, Gaviglio may not be able to join the Knights for their June 9 season-opener against the Bend Elks. The 17th-ranked Beavers (23-9, 8-4 Pac-10) looked primed for another long postseason run, and the College World Series begins June 13 in Omaha, Neb.
"We feel like if we handle our business, the opportunity for the postseason will be there," Yeskie said.
And where does Gaviglio fit into Oregon State's playoff plans?
"I think if we're going to have the opportunity to play in the postseason, that (pressure) is something that he's going to have to become accustomed to," Yeskie said. "If the College World Series is something that's in our future, (Gaviglio) will have a say in that."
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or email@example.com