Who Will Lead the PAC-12 Down the Stretch?

Bryan Holt FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

The last month of regular season baseball is upon us as the race for the PAC-12 championship inches closer and closer.  Oregon State and Oregon sit 5th and 6th, respectively, in the national poll.  The Ducks and Beavers have been battling all year to be on top the conference standings, with the rest of the teams fighting to get into the picture as the season comes to a close.  The UCLA Bruins and Arizona State Sun Devils have been knocking on the state of Oregon’s door, itching to have a chance at a PAC-12 title.

The "O" is what drives the Ducks to success.

The “O” is what drives the Ducks to success.

The Bruins have been in and out of the picture all year because of constant struggles, but the team has caught fire lately.  UCLA has won seven of their last nine conference games, two of those wins resulting in a series win over the Ducks.  The road ahead looks bright for the Bruins considering the games they have left to play.

Coming off a sweep of Utah, UCLA sits ranked 10th nationally and has three match ups with conference teams left on their schedule: Arizona, USC and Stanford.  Judging by the success Oregon has had against these teams in posting an 8-1 record, the Bruins should have no problems winning games down the stretch, but they will need some help from other teams to catch the Ducks and Beavers.

The Bruins sit 3.5 games back of the conference lead, which means they will have to be almost perfect in the remainder of the season and Oregon and Oregon State will also have to lose some of the remaining games they have on the schedule.  Luckily for UCLA, the two teams are set to meet up May 17-19 for their annual Civil War series so there will be losses in that series, but that still wouldn’t be enough for the Bruins to jump into the lead.

Oregon has one more series, after playing Oregon State, against the Utah Utes, who are currently last in the PAC-12 at 5-19.  The Beavers, on the other hand, still have to travel to the Bay Area this weekend to face Stanford and then the season finale against the Washington State Cougars.  The series against the Cougars should be easy going.  The Cardinal, however, could present some problems.

Stanford has also been inconsistent all year, but they are still a team worth worrying about.  The Cardinal have won every series in their conference this year aside from losses to Oregon, Oregon State and Utah.  Stanford has the ability to not only beat the Beavers, but they can also spoil any hopes UCLA has to the PAC-12 throne.  With an ace like Mark Appel, the Cardinal have the ability to win at least one game of every series they play.  Posting an 8-3 record, Appel has an earned run average of 1.56 in 86.1 innings, most of any other pitcher in the conference and has 106 strikeouts on the year, the third most of any pitcher in the country.

While the Bruins sit and wait, the leaders of the PAC look to continue their success.  All year it has been predicted that the title will come to the Civil War series and down the stretch, winning the series is vital for both the Ducks and Beavers.  With UCLA threatening, neither team has much room for error, but it shouldn’t affect the play of either team because there are bigger matters at hand.

One aspect the Beavers don't have, an All-American closer in Jimmy Sherfy.

One weapon the Beavers don’t have, an All-American closer in Jimmy Sherfy.

Winning the Civil War series is the primary objective for both Oregon and Oregon State. The two teams have been riding the strong arms of their pitching staffs all season long.  Oregon State has the second best staff in the country on paper, and in over 45 games the Beavers have posted a 2.04 ERA.  This domination on the mound makes them tough for any team to beat, but the versatility of the Ducks’ offense can cause problems for the Beaver pitchers.

Oregon’s offense uses “Horton Ball,” or small ball, to score runs in times of need.  The Ducks have successfully utilized the opportunity-opening strategy of sacrifice bunts 71 times this season, 11 more than any other team in the conference.  The ability to move runners into scoring position opens more chances for timely hits to score runs.  The Ducks do a good job of this all the way through the line-up; Aaron Payne hits second in the lineup and leads the team with 15 sacrifice bunts and Connor Hofmann, who usually is in the bottom of the order, has 11 sacrifice bunts on the year.

Celebrating the "small" things in life after a walk-off bunt.

Celebrating the “small” things in life after a walk-off bunt.

Though the small ball strategy is effective, the overall versatility of the Duck offense is prevalent in the recent success of Duck hitters.  In the past two weeks a Duck has been named PAC-12 Player of the Week for their outstanding offensive production. Freshman Mitchell Tolman batted .474 this last week with 14 RBIs to win the award one week after first baseman Ryon Healy went 6-for-15, batting .400 with two home runs and seven RBIs.

The Ducks look to gain momentum before the Civil War series as they travel to Columbus, Ohio, to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in a non-conference series this weekend before returning home to face Gonzaga on May 14th and 15th.

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