The recent gloomy weather sums up Coach Horton’s mood surrounding the Oregon Ducks. Frustration mounts, both in the dugout and the clubhouse. Recently, a lack of focus at the plate and costly errors have disrupted the good vibes.
However, this season is far from Oregon giving up on the season. A big series against Oregon State presents an opportunity for Oregon to regain its early season form. Let’s look briefly at what has gone wrong and how the damage can be fixed.
Oregon’s current slump is head-scratching. To a casual observer, with the opening series win against Hawaii, sweep of New Mexico State and St. John’s and series win at UC Santa Barbara, the team looked poised for a postseason return. With Cole Irvin returning to the rotation, he has motivated the team with his early success. His return to the mound sparked Oregon’s early run, in part due to his pitch command. Oregon’s bats caught fire and defensive plays in tight spots secured wins. All signs pointed to Coach Horton having assembled another solid team with hopes of going far.
Then red flags started showing up. San Francisco’s two-game sweep of Oregon at home saw the wheels coming off. Hitters went cold, and runs became few. Even with a series win against UC Riverside on the road, the struggles continued, as Arizona swept Oregon in the desert. Pitchers got rocked early and often in Arizona. Oregon’s errors on defense were painful to see. The frustration grew to greater heights with the loss to lowly University of Portland, a team that entered the contest with five wins.
As the fans that attended the series opener against Michigan State can attest, the Ducks were too aggressive at the plate. It is not worth mentioning that striking out fifteen times doesn’t help. Given opportunities to score with men on base, Oregon could have won the game and given starter Cole Irvin a win. Oregon, however, only mustered one run, and fell in extra innings. Failing to drive in runs in that game represents a team in a downward trend. On the positive side, the Ducks can only move upward and onward.
A trip to the postseason doesn’t appear likely, but now the end of the season stands as a great opportunity for improvement. If confidence can be regained within the team, even though that slim chance to reach the postseason is still possible, the confidence will provide a huge boost heading into next season.
Here is how Oregon turns it around.
The bats of Shaun Chase, Mitchell Tolman, Scott Heineman, and Matt Eureste must lead the charge on offense. Getting the lead-off man on base or a late inning rally would be a step in the right direction. In particular, Phil Craig-St. Louis has been a great addition to the team. His aggressive but productive hitting at the plate has given the Ducks a batting template to match Coach Horton’s small-ball tactics. Most importantly, Oregon needs to score runs early in order to give its pitchers a boost of confidence heading to the mound. The Ducks need to refocus and believe in Coach Horton’s approach to the game. Though not the sexy choice, Horton’s tactics deal a lot of damage by keeping the opponent guessing. Forget about hitting a home run, says small-ball, just focus on getting on base.
Despite recent struggles on the mound, look for Oregon pitching also to get back on track. The loss of Jack Karraker is certainly a blow, but pitchers Conor Harber, Stephen Nogosek, and Garrett Cleavinger are capable of handling the load when called upon. Cole Irvin was back to himself with a fine outing against Michigan State, despite the power outage at the plate. David Peterson, who can wheel and deal, will need to finish strong when going deep in a game. Should the season continue to become a teachable moment, Coach Horton may need to consider looking at his pitching staff to see who fits in the plans for the 2016 season. Though young, the current pitchers look capable to contribute to significant future success.
Oregon sits at crossroads with the Civil War this weekend. A series win against Oregon State will go a long way toward improving morale for an Oregon team facing adversity. At this point, Oregon has nothing to lose but play for pride. Should the series be lost, preparation for next season will begin in earnest.
Top photo by Kevin Cline