The regular season is now complete. Slates are wiped clean with the end of the Pac-12 race, and the start on the road to Omaha.
The College World Series has been around since 1950 and in that span the Oregon Ducks have only managed to venture there once. Coming off a record-breaking season in wins, Oregon (45-14) will begin its new season in the Eugene Regional hosting South Dakota State, San Francisco and Rice.
Oregon will open up with South Dakota State (35-22) Friday at 6 pm. Rice and USF begin the regional at 2 pm.
This is the second year in a row that PK Park has been chosen as a regional site for the NCAA baseball tournament. Oregon made it to the Super Regionals last year, but losing to Kent State wasn’t exactly the plan. Now almost a year since the heartbreaking loss to the Golden Flashes, a new Duck team prepares for the road to Omaha, but this time with a sense of urgency.
The Eugene Regional field is loaded with arms; the Rice Owls rank 11th in the nation with a 2.72 earned run average, which has led them to a solid 41-17 record on the season. The San Francisco Dons bring a good pitching staff to the pool, as well as South Dakota State. Layne Somsen leads the Jackrabbit rotation with a 1.92 ERA.
Like Oregon, the Owls also have a good three-man rotation at the start, all posting ERAs of 2.70 or lower. Against Pac-12 teams this season, the Owls are 3-1, taking two out of three from Stanford to start the season and a win against California in early March. If Rice is able to thrive in the pitcher-friendly ballpark of Eugene and the Ducks win their bout over South Dakota State, will Rice have enough firepower on offense to cope with the resilient Oregon pitching staff?
The Conference USA champions are not a bad team on offense as their combined team batting average of .282 is higher than that of the Ducks, but take into consideration the level of competition both teams have faced throughout the year.
The Ducks have faced some of the nation’s top starting pitchers within conference play this year such as top prospect Mark Appel from Stanford whom Oregon defeated, freshman star Andrew Moore out of Oregon State, and Cal-State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman to name a few. The constant exposure to a playing field of high pitching quality like the Pac-12, Oregon should have the advantage over the three teams in the pool.
South Dakota State will challenge the Ducks first on Friday. The Jackrabbits have options as to who will be its starter.
Layne Somsen has the best ERA of any starter on the team, but senior right-hander Stephen Bougher has been just as if not more productive. Also accumulating a good ERA of 2.89, Bougher is 8-2 on the year with five complete games in 13 starts, making either pitcher a dangerous threat to ruin the start of Oregon’s run to the Super Regional.
Despite good pitching from top-to-bottom in the regional, the Ducks’ style of play is effective no matter which team they play. The small ball, or as Oregon likes to call “Horton Ball,” mentality has led the Ducks to where they are currently, finishing second in the Pac-12 and seeded eighth on the national scale.
For small ball to work there must be a catalyst for the offense. Oregon’s very diverse line up that features both speed and power allows for a unique system to be put into play.
The Ducks utilize this method throughout the whole batting order, but the one-two punch at the top gets things started for the offense.
Brett Thomas and Aaron Payne are parts are huge to the success of the Oregon squad. Thomas leads the team in on-base percentage and batting average. This allows for the outstanding bunting ability of Payne to be used to its full potential.
Payne ranks third in the nation in sacrifice bunts and leads the team with 22. Thomas’ speed on second a little less than half the time he comes to the plate and with 3-4-5 hitters coming to the plate, allows for more opportunities to score. This is mirrored in Oregon’s statistics as Thomas leads the team in runs scored.
The Ducks must win at least three games if they want to advance to the Super Regionals for the second consecutive season. The pitching staff has changed with the departure of Alex Keudell and the emergence of a new ace in Cole Irvin. With a more efficient rotation, deeper bullpen, and one of the nation’s top closers, Golden Spike semifinalist Jimmy Sherfy, the Ducks should have no trouble keeping run totals to a minimum.
Though Oregon came in second in the Pac-12, they have the ability to challenge just about any team in the nation. The constant pressure throughout the lineup, much like that of the NCAA’s top teams Vanderbilt and North Carolina, could be what propels this team into Omaha.
All the games of the regional will be shown online at espn3.com.