The Ducks struggled in their trip through SEC country last week. Each of the starters posted his shortest outing of the year as Oregon skidded into its first losing streak of 2016. The series in Starkville gave head coach George Horton an opportunity to trot out his bullpen as the long relievers begin to solidify their roles.
The problem the bullpen faces is two-fold. If the Ducks want to remain competitive in May, long relief will have to eat up innings. Experience for the relievers and rest for the starters are crucial ingredients for a College World Series run.
“It’s a little inexperienced, our bullpen,” Horton said on Wednesday. “That’s my biggest concern, although very talented.”
Horton and Co. are counting on that talent lasting beyond the present. The less immediate problem facing the club is the future of the star-studded rotation.
Cole Irvin is on his way out the door at the season’s end, and Matt Krook – should he stay healthy and productive – will be right behind him. David Peterson will return as a junior, but the Ducks are on the clock and have to make a splash sooner rather than later.
Krook’s poor 0.2 inning start in Starkville was more along the lines of what we thought we might see from him. On the bright side, we caught another glimpse of Isaiah Carranza who is presumably being groomed to step into the rotation next year.
Horton’s plans for Carranza aren’t clear, but he has shown confidence in the freshman, saying “He’s arguably our fourth or fifth starter, he’s one of the two or three guys we would go to first in long relief.”
The freshman from La Verne, Calif., gave up two runs on four hits over 4.2 innings in Mississippi. While Carranza hasn’t reached the same level of dominance as the rest of the starters, his ceiling remains high. He showed that he possesses bat-missing stuff as a junior in high school when he struck out 60 batters over 43.1 innings of work. Those numbers haven’t shown up in his appearances with the Ducks, but playing under the tutelage of three of the best strike-throwers in the country isn’t going to slow him down.
When Garrett Cleavinger left at the end of 2015 and Stephen Nogosek was bumped to the ninth-inning role, the expectation was that Cooper Stiles would slide into the eighth-inning spot. Expectations are rarely met, however, as the carousel of relievers continues spin.
Stiles heard the voices and felt the expectation of an increased role coming into the season, but he hasn’t been concerned about his playing time. “Our whole pitching staff is pretty good.” He said, “When my number is called, I’ll be ready. It’s just a role thing.”
The side-armer hasn’t had many chances to stand out, throwing only 3.2 innings, including his disastrous appearance against UCSB where he was saddled with his first loss. An outing that Horton described as “uncharacteristic.”
Overall, Stiles has pitched well in his four appearances, improving his control from 2015 and posting the second best era among relievers – Nogosek, Brac Warren and Jack Karraker have not allowed an earned run this year.
With the exception of Nogosek, Matt Mercer is the reliever Horton can’t help talking about.
“Mercer has emerged as someone we can trust,” Horton told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. The skipper even excused part of the freshman’s poor outing last weekend. “An unlucky [inning]” he said, “we probably could have got an out for him. That would have been critical.”
Mercer hasn’t received much work in live games, logging just three innings. One of those was the five-run, five-hit appearance last weekend, explaining the sky-high 15.00 era that mars his stat line. Given an opportunity to smooth out his averages, Mercer is positioned to insert himself into high-leverage situations for the Ducks.
“Whatever situation I can be in to help the team win. I’m up for anything,” the reliever explained Wednesday.
Regardless of who is handed the ball in the later innings, a strong bullpen is a pre-requisite for any playoff team. The relievers stepped into the spotlight at the end of the 2015 campaign, so we should expect similar results again. The scant bullpen use may be a tactical decision by Horton and the rest of the staff. Entering Pac-12 play this weekend against Utah, the less film the Utes have to watch, the better positioned Oregon is to jump out to an early conference lead.
Top Photo by Dave Peaks