The transition from high school to NCAA Division 1 baseball involves perhaps the steepest adjustment curve of any sport.
Most hitters can handle even a firm fastball that is over the heart of the plate.
Most pitchers can throw, at minimum, two pitches for strikes in any count.
Most defenders will make nearly every routine play and the occasional spectacular one.
Thus, it is not surprising that Jake Mulholland was a bit apprehensive entering his first fall season at Oregon State University, the premier destination for college baseball players in the Northwest.
Even a player as decorated as Mulholland was at Snohomish High School — twice an All-State selection, Herald Player of the Year as a senior, Area Code Games participant — has to wonder if he can cut it at a program like the one coach Pat Casey has built in Corvallis.
“My very first appearance in the fall, in a live scrimmage, I was about as nervous as I’ve ever been. I think a lot of the freshmen were,” Mulholland said in a phone interview. “The first batter I pitched to was (infielder) Cadyn Grenier, who’s one of the best hitters in the nation. And fortunately for me, I struck him out. That was a big eye-opener for me, and I immediately thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
The Beavers’ 2017 opponents certainly would agree.
Oregon State is 28-1 (12-0 Pac-12) and ranked first in the nation by D1Baseball.com and Baseball America following this weekend’s conference series against Utah, and Mulholland’s performance out of the bullpen is an important reason for that success.
He’s been about as good as one can be, allowing just two earned runs in 30 2/3 innings of work for a 0.59 earned run average in his first collegiate season. Mulholland wasn’t scored upon in his OSU career until giving up single runs in back-to-back winning outings against the Utes on Friday and Saturday.
The left-hander has a record of 4-0 in a team-high 13 appearances and is second on the team with three saves as part of a pitching staff that has a combined earned-run average of 1.81.
“About Christmastime (pitching coach Nate) Yeskie told me about how much Jake had bought into what we were trying to teach mentally, and that he felt Jake could pitch in games as a freshman and have success,” Casey said. “We knew he came from good people in high school and at (his club team) Chaffey, and it’s been exciting to see him take the next step. There really haven’t been any situations that have been too big for him.”
Mulholland pounds the strike zone with his three primary pitches — four-seam fastball, curveball, changeup. He’s allowed just 17 hits in his 30-plus innings. He has struck out 29 and walked just five, with two of those coming on Feb. 25 and three on Saturday, where the Beavers won their second consecutive game over the Utes in walkoff fashion.
Mulholland’s performance Saturday was striking in that he worked 6 2/3 innings of two-hit relief to keep Oregon State in the game. He didn’t allow a hit through five of those frames, but gave up a go-ahead home run in the top of the 16th. His offense bailed him out, scoring twice in the bottom half for the win.
Virtually all of Mulholland’s innings have been of the high-leverage variety.
In all but one of Mulholland’s appearances, the Beavers were either behind or ahead by four or fewer runs, proving that Casey and Yeskie have great confidence in Mulholland protecting leads or keeping deficits manageable.
“It takes a ton of focus, a ton of belief in what you’ve done through the year,” Mulholland said of what it takes to succeed in those situations. “You have to be prepared and confident and not worry about anything except making your next pitch.”
The mental side of pitching, in which Mulholland was immersed during his junior and senior seasons at Snohomish under coach Kim Hammons and pitching coach Nick Hammons, is what has served him so well for the Beavers.
“We taught him that to pitch at a high level, you have to be a person that will attack and be aggressive in all situations,” Kim Hammons said. “You can’t let the game come to you. Jake always attacked, and there were some pretty good teams that he pitched against.”
“That mental side is paramount in what he’s been able to do,” Casey said. “He trusts himself, and he believes in himself no matter what the situation is.”
Mulholland, who went undrafted out of high school, was thrust into a potentially thorny spot on March 24, with College World Series runner-up Arizona in Corvallis for a key Pac-12 series.
In the opening game, Mulholland entered in the top of the ninth with the score tied 3-3 after each team scored two runs in the previous frame.
With Goss Stadium jumping, Mulholland had the poise to work around two base hits and retire the Wildcats to keep the game tied. The Beavers won on a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
“One of the main reasons I came to Oregon State was to pitch in challenging situations,” Mulholland said. “I love to compete, and that outing against Arizona was one of my favorites. To come on in a high-pressure situation against a great team was a lot of fun.”
It was a statement win in what has become a statement season for Oregon State, which was questionably excluded from the NCAA regional field last season.
Mulholland said it was made very clear to the team’s incoming freshmen that the Beavers had a point to prove in 2017.
“Even not being a part of the team last year, I still felt the hurt of that,” he said. “We wanted to make it a point that we should have made it, and let it be known why we should have made it.”
From the beginning of fall ball, the OSU coaching staff has told the pitching staff that it is the key to getting the Beavers back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013.
“Coach Yeskie told us on Day 1 that we were going to be the best pitching staff in the country, and a lot of us believed him right away,” Mulholland said. “Every single guy on the staff has the same goals, and freshmen get treated the same way as seniors, with the same expectations.”
Like the majority of his fellow pitchers, Mulholland was primarily a starter at Snohomish, and although both he and Casey say he’s been enthusiastic about coming out of the bullpen, it’s still been an adjustment.
“I think he’s still working on that new role, not knowing when he’s going to throw,” Casey said. “He’s being asked to do things he’s never been asked to do. He’ll get in a game and might not throw for two days. He might come in with the bases loaded, he might start a clean inning. But he continues to improve with the overall physical and mental preparation. And I think he generally wants to win. Some guys would be upset that they’re not in the starting rotation. I don’t think he cares.”
Mulholland also sparingly throws a slider in addition to his three primary pitches, and with that four-pitch mix and his relentless strike throwing, he has all the ingredients to become a starter for the Beavers.
“There’s no doubt that he’s a candidate to be one of those guys,” Casey said. “For now, we just want to see him continue to develop, but he can be a starter at the highest level.”