The Super Bowl was decided last weekend, and while most of the country is lamenting the end of football, I have been counting down the days to spring. With baseball securely in the driver’s seat and only six days until Oregon kicks off the 2016 season, here are six storylines to watch for this year on the diamond.
1. Oregon will attempt to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 1957
I’ve said it before and I will say it again here: The Pac-12 is the toughest place to play in college athletics. Overall, the Pac-12 has represented well in postseason play, producing four National Champions and four runners-up since 2000.
UCLA represented the conference as a No. 1 seed in last year’s College World Series, after taking the conference title for the third time this decade. The Bruins were monsters on the mound last year as they led the nation by posting a 2.17 team ERA. Top-3 spots in the conference in 11 offensive categories helped their case as well.
Oregon State is this year’s favorite to take the conference title, and is the preseason No. 5 team in the country. The Beavers took out North Carolina with back to back championships in ’06-’07, finishing the two-year run with a 99-34 record.
Out of conference games against the Beavers may prove to make or break either team’s seasons. We can also expect a nasty series in Los Angeles after the Ducks handed UCLA their sole series loss, en route to clinching a tournament berth.
2. George Horton is 39 wins away from No. 300 as a Duck.
After a mid-season slide put the Ducks’ playoff hopes in dire straits, a late season surge pushed Oregon into the postseason, barely. Inconsistency from the pitchers hurt them while the defensive miscues didn’t do the Ducks any favors.
With those problems expected to be alleviated, Horton is set to cruise into the 300 win category as a Duck and could see his Div. 1 record reach 750 wins.
Horton is certainly no stranger to winning. After playing in Cal State Fullerton’s first College World Series appearance in 1975, he returned as the head coach in 1997, racking up 490 wins and a national title in 2004. Now he is rekindling some of that magic and working on a return to the promised land.
3. The Ducks look to improve a .500 record in postseason play over the last 3 years.
While the Pac-12 has played well, the Ducks have struggled in postseason play. Since the program was resurrected in 2009, Oregon has advanced past the regional stage only once. The Ducks are an even 6-6 since 2013, missing the NCAA tournament in 2011.
The roster for 2016 is a solid mix of returning players (21) and a promising freshman class featuring infielders Matt Kroon (inf) and Travis Moniot (inf), neither of whom Horton has counted out from starting, come opening day.
With the promise the roster shows, expect the Ducks to come out the other side of this campaign with a winning record in postseason play.
4. Oregon’s pitching staff can dethrone UCLA as the Best in the West.
Those pitchers, though! Cole Irvin, David Peterson and Matt Krook have garnered plenty of attention heading into spring, and its easy to see why. A healthy Irvin and the return of Krook put the Ducks in contention to lead the Pac-12 in a number of pitching categories.
Even with the inconsistencies from pitchers last year, Oregon fared well in two of the most important categories for pitchers. The staff held opponents to a .241 batting average, third lowest in the conference. They also struck out 510 batters, second only to the powerhouse Bruins.
Proving their mettle in the Pac-12 will position them with a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament come summer.
5. Control is a concern.
As excited as we are to watch some Duck domination on the mound, we have to keep in mind where those arms faltered last year.
Control was a concern last year as Oregon pitchers hit more batters (91) than any other team in the conference — far outstripping second place Cal who hit 50.
The Ducks struggled in other control categories as well, throwing the second-most wild pitches (67) — 10 fewer than Stanford, walked the fourth-most batters (233) and were bottom of the conference in balks (11)
Considering the weight put on the pitchers’ shoulders, cleaning up the mound game is essential if a national title is in the future.
6. Defense is a mixed bag.
So that defense is what hurt us last year, right?
Well, yes and no. Once again, the Ducks showed well in a number of peripheral categories — and, come on baseball fans, who doesn’t love those? — as they led the PAC in chances (2,526), putouts (1728), assists (722) and turned 58 doubles plays, only seven less than first place Cal.
Unfortunately, the more impactful categories posed the largest issues. The 76 errors and 19 passed balls were conference lows and contributed to the fifth-worse fielding % (.970).
The pressure from the freshmen and focus on defense from returning players such as Mark Karaviotis will hopefully remedy some of those more uncomfortable numbers.
All in all, the Ducks are poised to make a splash in the national discussion in 2016. Horton and the staff have set themselves up for success, fostering solid chemistry in the clubhouse and a competitive spirit on the field. Eugene is a football town now, but the diamond Ducks will have something to say about that.
— Oregon opens the season on Feb. 19 in a 3-game series at San Diego State.
Top Photo by Dave Peaks