By Rob Moseley
When Mitchell Tolman stepped to the plate for his first at-bat against San Diego on Monday, he saw the first baseman creep in, as if anticipating a bunt.
That made little sense; there was a runner on second and two outs, and the Ducks’ cleanup hitter was at the plate. What happened next surprised Tolman even more – the San Diego pitcher threw four balls well wide of the plate, intentionally walking Tolman in the first inning of a scoreless game.
Again in the second inning, Tolman was intentionally walked, with two on, one out and first base open. If there’s a drawback to hitting .500 over your previous13 games, that would be it.
“I’d much rather swing the bat,” said Tolman, who was named hitter of the week by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association on Tuesday, and who leads No. 23 Oregon into a three-game series against Washington State beginning Thursday in PK Park at 6 p.m.
“I love coming up with guys in scoring position. They pitched around me, and it is what it is; I have faith in all the guys behind me. It makes you feel good, but then again I’d love to swing away and try and come through for my team there.”
Tolman has been doing a lot of that for the Ducks lately, when given the chance. He entered the San Diego game Monday having gone 21-of-42 over the previous 13 games, with six doubles and 12 RBIs.
A .315 hitter as a freshman last spring, Tolman is hitting at a .351 clip this season. He leads the Ducks in on-base average (.466), slugging (.504) and RBIs (35), and he’s in the Pac-12’s top 10 in every major hitting category save home runs.
“He’s making it awfully easy,” UO coach George Horton said.
That hasn’t always been the case this season for Tolman. Through 15 games to start the year, the native of Lake Forest, Calif., was a .245 hitter (13-of-53). Having hit behind slugger Ryon Healy last season, Tolman seemed to be trying to replace Healy out of the gates this spring.
“I was just trying to do too much,” Tolman said.
It was around that time that Tolman huddled with UO assistants Mark Wasikowski and Jay Uhlman to address his struggles. They talked about his mentality at the plate, and not trying to do too much – “the gaps and the lines, for me, are where I have to live,” said Tolman, who is perhaps generously listed at 6 feet tall.
And the coaches identified a mechanical flaw in Tolman’s swing, a sort of “Eureka” moment as Wasikowski remembers it. After that slow start through 15 games, Tolman hit .333 over the ensuing nine.
“That was him knowing now, ‘this is what I’m trying to fix,’ and not quite being in the groove yet,” Wasikowski said. “Now he’s back to being the old Mitchell Tolman that, from a mechanical standpoint, matched up with last year and allowed him to have so much success.”
Beginning with a 3-for-4 day at Stanford on March 28, Tolman had multiple hits eight times in the 13-game hot streak. He was 1-for-3 on Monday against San Diego, giving him hits in 12 of 14 games.
“I’m not trying to get big, I’m not trying to muscle it up – I’m trying to be who I am consistently,” Tolman said. “I think I’ve done a good job staying with that.”
Through his offensive resurgence, Tolman has also played errorless infield defense. He began the season at first base but moved to his position last season, third base, following Scott Heineman’s shoulder injury.
Tolman had two errors early in the season, but none since Feb. 28. He was the designated hitter for four games last week while rehabbing an arm injury.
“It took me a series maybe to get the comfort level back at third,” Tolman said. “But we put in a lot of work, and when we found out about Scott, I really put in the effort to get comfortable over there again.”
Against the Cougars on Thursday, Tolman could be back at third, and back leading the UO offense from the middle of the lineup.
“I think we’ve been playing well as a whole, every aspect,” Tolman said. “And I think that’s going to continue into the weekend.”