Featured Photo © Gary Breedlove Photography
The PAC-12 baseball race is starting to heat up as the conferences’ top two teams face off in a non-conference Civil War game in Corvallis, Oregon. The Ducks have been the most impressive team in the conference thus far, winning their first three series in conference play before losing to Arizona State this past weekend. These series victories include consecutive sweeps of Washington and the reigning national champion Arizona. They are in the midst of an eight-game road trip before heading home to play the third place UCLA Bruins.
The Oregon Ducks seem to have a secret to winning games on the baseball diamond. So far in 2013, the Ducks’ success has resulted in a 23-8 record overall and 9-3 in conference play. Sitting atop the standings are the Oregon State Beavers but the Ducks are right behind them midway through the season.
But what is this secret formula that Oregon has come up with so far this year? It consists of two things: a great pitching staff and mental toughness. The two components have been prevalent all year with Oregon ability to stay composed in tight games. The pitching staff has been outstanding this year, posting a 3.02 ERA in 277 innings pitched. The pitchers are relentless on the mound — they’ve allowed only 58 extra base hits in 1000 at bats and are allowing the second fewest home runs in the conference.
Complementing the pitching staff is the team’s resiliency. When trailing in games this season, Oregon has been able to keep their composure and stop the game from getting out of hand. The pitchers have continued to pound the strike zone, allowing for the offense to have more chances to get them back into the game. The starting pitching has been immaculate as of late; Jake Reed, Tommy Thorpe, and Cole Irvin combined for a 1.26 ERA over the back-to-back sweeps with just six earned runs in 43 innings. All-American closer Jimmy Sherfy has recorded 8 saves on the year and is an x-factor for the Ducks with his ability to shut games down. One player under the radar for the Ducks’ staff is pitcher Jeff Gold. Gold this year has pitched the fourth most innings on the team and out of those four he has the best ERA at 1.52 and lowest opponents batting average at .232. The depth of their pitching allows for them to give teams many different looks on the mound, which keeps hitters off balanced and out of rhythm.
Though Oregon has been successful this far they still have a tough road ahead of them with games against Stanford, UCLA, and CAL. While the Bruins are 19-9 overall and threatening the Ducks’ number two spot in the standings, I believe the race will come down to the Civil War series. The Ducks and Beavers both have outstanding pitching staffs. Oregon State’s pitchers have an impressive combined ERA of 1.81 in PAC-12 play, yet I don’t think they have been challenged like the Ducks have been. The Beavers, Cardinals and Bruins will all have to travel to PK Park where the Ducks are 15-3 this season and very tough to beat. If Oregon can win those three series they have an extremely good chance at being crowned the PAC-12 champion.
Oregon has played a few very important series thus far, including games against third ranked Vanderbilt and fourth ranked Cal State Fullerton this season. Though Vanderbilt won the series, the Ducks were able to hold their own against one of the top baseball programs in the country, which I think had made them a better team. Duck hitters struggled against the Commodore’s pitching in the first two games of the series, but were able to string together hits at the end to get a win in the final series game. This mentality has continued over the course of the season and has made Oregon a better hitting team.
Oregon is also currently ranked ninth in the nation after falling in the series to Arizona State over the weekend. This also brings up the question of where they stand in the national picture as well. Half of the PAC-12 teams are in the top-25 this week, which attests to the strength of the competition of the teams that Oregon plays in conference, giving them a high likelihood of being in the College World Series for the first time since 1954. Their tests against Vanderbilt and Cal State Fullerton earlier in the season act as a good evaluation of where the Ducks stand in the national rankings.
While the Ducks face many challenges ahead, I think their pitching, mental resiliency, and home field success is what will give Oregon the edge over other teams in both the PAC-12 and into regional play. Many players have mentioned that they take pride in being mentally tough and the importance of playing all nine innings of the game. This mental state of mind has proven to be successful, as shown by the reigning world champion San Francisco Giants, and I think that is what will propel the Ducks through the race to a national title.