Surprise, surprise – pitching headlines another preseason for Oregon baseball. Cole Irvin told reporters last week that he is “the healthiest [he’s] been [his] whole career.” Matt Krook is returning, attempting conjure some of the magic he showed as a freshman after shining in Cape Cod this summer. Last, but certainly not least, is David Peterson who should only improve with age, a good sign considering he ate up more innings (82) than any other pitcher on the staff while leading the team with 81 Ks.
No one really had any concern that the pitching staff wouldn’t continue to thrive. But the offense, that was a different story.
Irvin commented that the staff is looking for the bats to put 2-3 runs on the board, and they can handle the rest. That is all well and good to say before any meaningful games have been played, but what does the offensive half of the roster think about that?
For three seasons, Mitchell Tolman led the way for a beleaguered Duck offense that ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in five offensive categories and struck out more than any other Pac-12 team.
Tolman shined in his final season however, leading the team in — and get ready because it is a long list — BA (.325), Slugging % (.468), OBP (.457), Runs (43), Hits (75), RBIs (42), Doubles (20), Total Bases (108), Walks (44), Plate Appearances (291), AB (231), Games Played (62) and starts (62) before departing as a 7th-round pick by the Pirates.
That is the kind of production that Oregon needs to replace at the hot corner in 2016. Thankfully for fans, head coach George Horton has an answer, and most notably, one that could provide some pop for the team that hit the fourth fewest dingers in the conference.
Phil Craig-St. Louis had an impressive first campaign at the Div. 1 level last year. The junior college transfer played in the same number of games as Tolman and ranked second behind him in nine categories. Acknowledging the mindset of that Irvin and friends are bringing into games, he sees a higher ceiling than 2-3 runs for the offense.
“I feel like we can go out there and score double digits just by swinging,” he said. “We are going to get the 2-3 runs for sure, but we’re gonna get more just to make them feel comfortable.”
That kind of confidence comes when you spend every practice going up against the impressive staff that Horton is so pleased with.
Reluctant to take on the title of “the” leader of the offense, Craig-St. Louis said that his game has improved the most on defense, although he expects to see his power numbers rise as well.
“Last year I had more of a single approach, driving the ball the other way,” he told me. While he plans to continue hitting the ball the opposite way, he expects to see his doubles total rise, aiming to produce as many runs as he can.
A late-season hero and budding leader in the clubhouse is sophomore Tim Susnara is the most knowledgeable offensive player when it comes to the pitchers opposing offenses will need to face this year. Despite being part of the battery that has so many fans talking about a Pac-12 title and CWS run, Susnara and the rest of the Ducks thrive on the opportunity to challenge Oregon’s Big Three every week in practice.
“There’s a time when you have to be an offensive guy and a time when you have to be a defensive guy,” Susnara explained. “When its hitting, I’m not your friend, I’m just gonna try to beat you.”
That level of competition is what Susnara said makes intra-squad scrimmages “game like.” Preparing the offense for a tough schedule that features a number of teams in NCBWA top 25, including an out-ofconference series on the road against No. 19 Mississippi State.
Despite lackluster peripheral stats, Oregon finished last year as a top five team in OBP (.362), Runs Scored (338) and RBI (308). In typical Horton small-ball fashion, the Ducks also topped the conference in total plate appearances (2565), walks (294), HBP (76), and sac bunts (81).
With so many opportunities and an offense that is hungry to prove that Oregon is as dangerous at the plate as on the mound, it’s only a matter of time before they start to receive the attention they believe they deserve.
Top Photo by Dave Peaks