The Oregon Ducks baseball team is as hot as it could be heading into the biggest two week span of the season.
With UCLA and Stanford coming to PK Park this weekend and next, the Ducks can make it a two horse race for the Pac-12 title with OSU if they can take the next two series.
Is that a big if? It might be. UCLA and Stanford are two of the traditional powerhouses in the Pac-12. They are loaded with players who know that two wins over the Ducks in Eugene would register as 'big wins' for their programs in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee. They also know that a deep run in the postseason can start midway through the Pac-12 season, which is right where we are.
Despite all the Ducks have accomplished, they haven't won anything yet. Everyone on the team knows that. So far, Oregon has established itself as a contender for the Pac-12 title and hosting a regional in June. From here on out, Oregon will get the very best effort out of everyone they play.
And, it is a long loooong way to the finish line.
There are still 24 games to go. Oregon has five Pac-12 series left (including Oregon State May 17-19 in Eugene), a non conference roadie to Ohio State and a Tuesday/Wednesday series with Gonzaga, Seattle U, Portland and the Beavers.
Plenty of places to stub a toe and lose momentum.
If you are a fan rooting for Oregon to close out the regular season with the program's first Pac-12 title, here are the things you can count on:
Coach George Horton – You always look to your leader to guide you through choppy seas. Coach Horton is a calming influence on everyone in the program. He has been though the battles and knows a few things about pushing the right buttons at the right time.
Improving Offense - Led by Scott Heineman's electric bat and Ryon Healy's consistent power, the Ducks are carrying a slugging percentage of .422 and a stout .383 OBP against the mighty Pac-12. Overall this season, Oregon has a .377 SLG and a .356 OBP. All of those numbers are 2K13-esque compared to the traditional “get-em-on-move-em-over-get-em-in” Hortonball we have grown accustomed to at PK Park.
Oregon is hitting .308 in conference play compared to .268 overall this season. Impressive, considering the competition is theoretically better in the Pac-12. The scouting is better, for sure. Yet, four players (Scott Heineman, Mitchell Tolman, Ryon Healy and Brett Thomas) are hitting well over .300 and two hitters (Josh Graham and Tyler Baumgartner) are in the .290s.
Steady Starting Pitching – The offensive burst comes at a perfect time because the starting pitching hasn't been as pitch perfect as it has been at times in the past. Tommy Thorpe has moved to the front of the rotation to give Jake Reed a bit of a break from the glaring lights of Friday night. The move worked well at Cal, with Oregon posting its first Pac-12 road sweep. Like the batting average, the team ERA has also risen within league play, from 2.93 to 3.33. Trust me when I say that ANY coach in the country would give his left um …. fielder for a team ERA around 3.00 in a conference like the Pac-12.
Spectacular Pen – The starters have great confidence going into any game right now because of how well the hitters are doing, but the bullpen is as good as any in the country. Jimmy Sherfy (2-0, 1.07 ERA 12 saves) is living up to the preseason hype. Freshman lefty Garrett Cleavinger (2-0, 1.61 ERA, 2 saves in 21 appearances) is impersonating Tommy Thorpe’s freshman season and Jeff Gold (3-0, 1.74 28 Ks in 31 IP) is quietly having an incredible season. Darrell Hunter has been very reliable. It means the Duck starters have 7 inning games – and with the way the offense is going – they often have the lead when they leave the game.
Defense - The Ducks have the best defense in America. Wow, I had to read that twice just to enjoy the moment. It’s true. Just 16 errors all season leaves the Ducks with a .988 fielding percentage. Give big credit to Ryon Healy’s play at first base in addition to the spectacular JJ Altobelli and impressive play by Mitchell Tolman, Aaron Payne and a few amazing plays late in games from Kevin Minjares.
The Whole Package – Early in the season the question was the offense. Now that the Ducks are cooking, the only place on the field with less than an A is the starting pitching (!?). As hard as that is to believe, I’d say Thorpe, Irvin, Reed and Gold are still for a B+ right now. This deep into the Pac-12 season that is a terrific grade.
If everything stays in place like this, the Ducks will be in shape to reap the rewards they have been working toward. Of course, it’s baseball and things can change in one swing.