Two teams converged in a Civil War are set to battle once again, but this time there is more than just pride and bragging rights between the schools.
This time it’s for the Pac-12 baseball title.
With two weeks left to go in the season, the games are limited and every game is important.
The race has narrowed down to three teams that all sit in the Top 10 in the national rankings: the Oregon Ducks (19-5), Oregon State Beavers (20-4) and the UCLA Bruins (17-7).
The Beavers and Ducks play a pivotal series this weekend at PK Park, and will likely determine who will walk away with the Pac-12 championship, while UCLA seeks to find path into the mix in the last two weekends of the conference slate.
One statistic is reflected in the standings and has been the story of success for all three teams this season – earned run average.
Each team has been riding the arms of their dominant pitching staffs this season. Each team has been outstanding thus far, posting ERAs of under 3.00. The correlation shows in the conference standings, as the teams’ ERA rank in the same order as they do in the conference standings despite their lack of offensive production compared to the rest of the Pac-12 teams.
The Bruins have proven themselves worthy in this race, accumulating a 3-3 record against the Oregon schools, and winning the series against the Ducks at PK Park and taking one from Oregon State at Jackie Robinson Stadium in early April.
Next, UCLA travels to take on the USC Trojans in a battle for LA and then up north the following weekend to play a road series against Stanford. It is necessary for UCLA to win most if not all of these games if they want to have a shot at first place.
Currently sitting three games out of first, the Bruins have the advantage of the Civil War series, because one of the top two teams will lose at the least two games this weekend; however, that still isn’t enough to put them into first. They would need some help from Washington State, who goes to Corvallis, and Utah, who will host Oregon, for the final weekend of conference play.
Beating the Ducks or the Beavers has been hard to come by in recent weeks. Oregon State is currently on a 12-game win streak while the Ducks have found similar success, winning 13 out of their last 14 games.
Both teams are evenly matched for the most part, and even though the Beavers’ offense looks better on paper in just about every category that doesn’t take into account Oregon’s style of play – a very effective mix of small ball and timely hitting.
The offensive versatility and resiliency of Oregon’s pitchers (relievers in particular) will be the key components if the Ducks are going to knock the Beavers out of first place. Offensively, the Ducks’ bats have been connecting lately, and it shows in the recent performances by Oregon players Ryon Healy and Mitchell Tolman, who have won back-to-back Pac-12 Player of the Week honors. Also being recognized for his dominating start against the Ohio State Buckeyes, Cole Irvin was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week for the second time this season.
Aaron Payne leads the conference in sacrifice bunts with teammates Connor Hofmann and Tolman not far behind. Moving runners over into scoring position really increases opportunities to score and that’s why Oregon has been more successful this season
The bullpen is another key factor in the Civil War series.
Yes, Oregon State has a great pitching staff, but how does that give the Ducks the edge? Three names: George Horton, Garret Cleavinger and Jimmy Sherfy.
Horton is significant to Oregon’s pitching success because he calls pitches effectively with his innovated ways of keeping opposing teams off-balanced at the plate. Calling the pitches also allows for the young pitchers like Irvin and sophomores Jake Reed and Tommy Thorpe to focus on location and fundamentals rather than calling their own game.
Sherfy and Cleavinger are the X-Factors for the Ducks if they want to continue their success. Sherfy has 18 saves on the year, which is second in the nation and leads the conference. The All-American has been a huge part of this Oregon bullpen allowing just four earned runs in 35 innings for a 1.03 ERA.
Cleavinger, from Baldwin City, Kansas, sits right behind Sherfy with an 8-0 record and a 1.11 ERA. The setup man has been extremely effective, holding opponents’ batting averages to a mere .112.
What is most impressive is the resiliency of these young pitchers in the Pac-12 conference. The ability for them to keep their composure in strenuous situations is quite remarkable.
If the Duck offense can use their innovative ways to score runs against the Beavers’ top-notch starters and grab a lead early, Oregon State could have trouble finding runs late in games because of the depth and dominance of Oregon’s bullpen.
The Ducks look to sweep their brief two-game series with the Gonzaga Bulldogs at PK Park tonight. Oregon took Game 1 by the score of 4-3 thanks to Ryan Hambright’s walk-off single.