Many PAC-12 teams are looking strong as we head into the last month of the regular season and conference play. The Ducks are coming off a sweep at home against streaking Stanford. Oregon is right up at the top of the PAC-12 and national rankings with the Oregon State Beavers, who also just completed a sweep at home against the visiting Trojans.
A new PAC-12 nemesis enters the mix coming off the weekend — the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Sun Devils are 11-7 in conference play, which is tied for third with the UCLA Bruins and not far behind the Ducks. Arizona State has a good number of games left and has an opportunity to climb further in the rankings, but they will have to play immaculate ball.
The Sun Devils have proven they can bang with the best. They roughed up Oregon and UCLA at home in the early part of PAC-12 play and have been ranked for the majority of the season. They currently sit 8th in the national rankings, also ahead of Oregon despite trailing them in the conference standings. The reason they are such a dangerous team is because of their offensive firepower. Their production is there throughout the lineup, but the Devils have the luxury of what I consider a big three in their lineup: infielder Kasey Coffman, third baseman Michael Benjamin, and right fielder Trever Allen.
The Devils’ big three have been very productive in conference play — all with batting averages around .330 — but the production with runners on base and the long ball is what has kept them rolling in style. The trio has combined for 17 of the teams 28 homeruns, which is the most on any PAC-12 team this season. Recent contributions to the offense have been from designated hitter RJ Ybarra. Ybarra is hitting .355 so far this season, adding 18 RBIs and 3 homeruns. As a team, Arizona State leads the PAC-12 in slugging percentage but this makes them a one dimensional team that always relies on the big hit.
One contrast to this single dimension is Sun Devil’s ace southpaw sensation Ryan Kellogg. The 6’5″ freshman from Whitby, Ontario, has posted a 10-0 record this season with a 2.21 ERA. He has beaten every team he has faced this year — you name it: Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, USC, Washington State, Utah; he has beaten them. That gives Arizona State some hope, but they will need more than just one guy to do the job on the mound.
A big reason why the Ducks and the Beavers are still ahead in the PAC-12 race is simply because of their outstanding pitching staffs and the diversity of offensive production. Both lead the PAC-12 in ERA (and have for the most part of the season), which translates to a spurious correlation to the teams’ winning percentages. Neither team impresses on paper for offensive statistics, but both teams have found ways to win game in and game out.
The Ducks thrive in small ball situations and it has played an important role in their success. Oregon has 64 sacrifice bunts on the season, 9 more than any other team in the PAC-12, and 9 more than the combined total from Oregon State and Stanford. The Ducks have also found a way to put this tactic into scoring production. To solidify the teams’ series sweep against Stanford (and highlight just how well the Ducks play small ball), Mitchell Tolman laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to score Aaron Payne from third to cap a two-run ninth inning rally.
The UCLA Bruins stay in the hunt following their 2-1 series win over Washington State. They have some key games down the stretch that they must win or they will watch the Ducks or Beavers sail away with the conference race. They still must play Arizona and Utah at home, and then USC and Stanford on the road. Considering how UCLA has played with the top PAC-12 teams this task shouldn’t be tough to handle. They too sit ahead of the Ducks in Baseball America’s Rankings at nine.
Oregon’s offense is right where it needs to be heading into the last month of the regular season. The small ball is what has been getting them on base and moving runners over and allowing for the middle of the lineup to drive them in. Ryon Healy looks to continue his recent success; Healy was named PAC-12 Player of the Week after recording a hit in all four games on the week and at least one RBI in each game in the series sweep over Stanford .
The prediction continues however as I see the Civil War series to be the deciding factor for the outcome of this race. The Ducks and Beavers have been waiting for this all season as usual and this time it just may be for the title. The Beavers have been the top team all year but the Ducks have been right there with them as it goes on. Whoever wins that series will have complete control of their own destiny to win the PAC-12 championship.