Over the past few weeks, Oregon and Oregon State have been the two teams atop of the PAC-12 baseball standings, but as the season goes on teams and players get more competitive with one another, and the hunger to win a championship grows more and more with every series.
Oregon State is still considered the top team in the conference based on winning percentage, edging the Ducks out by a mere .007 points. This rivalry heats up every time these two teams meet, and the way the season has played out thus far it seems like the series between the two will determine who comes out of the standings victorious.
Though the Oregon schools have dominated this season, other schools are not too far behind and some have already started to make noise coming down the stretch. The UCLA Bruins visited PK Park last weekend and proved they can bang with the best. The Ducks’ pitching was solid all weekend but it was not enough as UCLA stole the show.
The Bruins took the first two games of the series, predominately because of dominating pitching performances by Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig. The two combined allowed just five hits and zero earned runs, both with seven innings of work. David Berg recorded his 9th and 10th saves of the season in these games, which is good for second best in the PAC-12 behind Oregon Duck All-American Jimmy Sherfy. The Ducks were able to string some runs together in the series finale; Scott Heineman was the hero, delivering a bases-loaded triple in the fifth inning and in the end was enough to secure the victory.
So with the Ducks coming off an aggravating series with the Bruins, they start to look forward to their next weekend series against the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford sits fourth in the PAC-12 standings. Stanford has won their last four conference series’ against 21-ranked Arizona, Washington, USC and Washington State. Though they don’t match up on paper with the other top teams in the conference, in conference play Stanford has recorded the best batting average of any team, being the only team hitting .305 through 15 games.
The Cardinal’s pitching has been mediocre at best this season but starting pitcher Mark Appel has been the best in the conference this year. He has posted outrageous numbers so far: 7-2 record with a 1.54 ERA, three complete games, and the most innings pitched with 70.1 innings. The way the Ducks struggled with UCLA’s pitchers, Mark Appel will be more than confident when the Cardinal visit PK Park this weekend.
The Ducks have four series left to play in conference games on their road to a championship. Oregon has been must successful this year when they have offensive production. Their pitching has been consistent all year, pounding the strike zone and holding teams to under three runs a game. When the Ducks don’t produce on offense they struggle. The UCLA series highlighted that, where through the first two games the Ducks’ hottest hitters went cold. Scott Heineman, PAC-12 Player of the Week last week, started the series off 0-9 before he got his three-RBI triple in game 3.
Even though the Ducks lost their series to the Bruins and they still have four conference series left to play, I still consider them to be in the best position to come out on top. The pitching has been phenomenal all season and it continues to do a great job even when trailing teams. Cole Irvin is a great example of the Ducks’ pitching rotation. Irvin also has impressive numbers this season in conference play, posting an ERA of 3.00 and a 7-2 record, the southpaw has proven to be the ace of this rotation even as a freshman. In game 2 of the series against the Bruins, Irvin has another quality start throwing a complete game, allowing just one unearned run but the Ducks offense was not able to produce.
If Oregon is going to win the last few series left, the bats will have to heat up again. Another aspect the Ducks can use to their advantage is the ability to play small ball. Having a balanced combination of playing small ball and then having the big hitters like Ryon Healy and Scott Heineman could be extremely effective for offensive production. Despite the loss to UCLA, the Ducks are almost untouchable when games are played at PK Park. Their toughest games will be against Stanford and Oregon State, and both series will be played in Eugene.
The Ducks continue their conference play this Friday at home against Stanford to kick off an essential series for both teams. Oregon looks to get back on track to their winning ways and Stanford looks to close the gap in the PAC-12 standings.