By Rob Moseley
After two years of reaching the postseason but falling short of the College World Series, the theme for Oregon baseball in 2014 is finishing.
The Ducks, who hold their first official practice Friday, finished a game short of playing in Omaha in 2012, and lost in the regional round last season, both at PK Park. As pitcher Jake Reed said earlier this week, the Ducks have pushed the boulder up near the top of the mountain, and now it’s time to shove it all the way over.
If Oregon can do so in 2014, Reed figures to play a key role. Finishing well this season will require finishing each game, getting late-inning production out of the bullpen, a formula proven to work nationally. UCLA had the lowest batting average and slugging average in the Pac-12 last season, but rode reliever David Berg’s 0.92 ERA and 24 saves all the way to the national championship.
The Ducks had a stellar closer of their own a year ago, Jimmie Sherfy, but the “Wild Thing” is now in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. To replace him, Oregon will look initially to Reed, a starter the last two seasons who is tentatively slated to begin the 2014 season as the Ducks’ closer.
“I think his stuff matches up pretty good,” UO coach George Horton said. “And his competitiveness, Jake has always wanted the ball in the tough situations, and not shied from that. You have to have that mentality if you’re coming in and the game’s on the line every time out.”
Reed, a junior from La Mesa, Calif., has been preparing himself to pitch in relief since the fall. He’s worked with UO assistant coach Dean Stiles on mechanical adjustments that give his fastball more movement, and he topped out at 96 mph in the fall, four to seven miles above where Reed worked as a starter the last two years.
“It’s been fun,” Reed said. “I had a really good fall, really good offseason. I’m pretty eager to get going here.”
Reed worked as Oregon’s Saturday starter in 2012, going 8-4 with a 2.92 ERA. Consistency was an issue last season, which Reed began as the Ducks’ Friday ace. Over the course of a season in which Reed went 6-6 with a 3.50 ERA, he was moved back to Sunday, as lefties Tommy Thorpe and Cole Irvin led the staff.
Reed tended to have one inning per start in which his mechanics got away from him and his fastball flattened out. He allowed a four-run inning to Loyola Marymount in February, a five-run inning to Oregon State on May 19, and a four-run inning by Utah a week later.
Pitching out of the ‘pen could alleviate that issue, with Reed summoning all of his intensity and concentration for a single inning at a time.
“I’m a pretty emotional guy, so if I were to be the closer, I feel like I could fill that role pretty well,” Reed said. “You get in there, you’re throwing one inning, you don’t have to conserve any energy. You just kind of go out there and get to pump.”
The Ducks have the luxury of trying Reed in a new role because of the development of freshman pitcher Matt Krook, a heralded recruit drafted in the first round who spurned the major leagues to enroll at Oregon. Krook, Irvin and Thorpe would be an all-lefty rotation, and eighth-inning guy Garrett Cleavinger also throws left-handed.
“If Jake Reed ends up being as effective as (Sherfy), and Garrett repeats the effectiveness of last year, we feel pretty good about the eighth and ninth,” Horton said.
Reed won’t be a Sherfy clone; few pitchers feature the devastating slider Sherfy threw. But Reed said his own breaking ball is improved over a year ago, and he’s eager to accept the challenge.
“He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder,” UO outfielder Scott Heineman said. “He had, in my eyes, a good year last year, but nothing he was satisfied with. He’s ready to go this year. He has a different demeanor this year – pumped up, really a bulldog on the mound. It’s good to see.”