By Rob Moseley
The Oregon baseball team will play its home opener Tuesday against Portland in PK Park at 6 p.m., and will do so ranked No. 9 in the country and sporting a 7-0 record.
For a team that lost slugger Ryon Healy and closer Jimmie Sherfy to the draft, and then lost expected staff ace Cole Irvin to an elbow injury, a flawless start might not have been anticipated. But UO coach George Horton and his staff appear to be pushing all the right buttons so far, getting production up and down the roster and particularly in clutch situations.
Here are three key reasons the Ducks will bring an unbeaten record into their home opener:
Excelling at small ball thanks to defense and clutch hitting: In this age of big ballparks and bats that reduce the power of swings for safety reasons, Horton builds his team to win close games, and the Ducks have been exceptional in that regard. Three of their victories have come by one run, thanks in part to exceptional outfield defense – including highlight-reel catches by Tyler Baumgartner in each series, at Hawaii and Loyola Marymount – and clutch hitting from newcomers on the bench.
In the four-game sweep at Hawaii to open the season, A.J. Balta drove in the go-ahead run on Saturday, then had another RBI pinch hit in a come-from-behind win Sunday. Balta is 6-for-17 with four RBIs already, and Austin Grebeck is 4-for-10 off the bench, unexpected contributions from two freshmen. “I’d like to say I’m smart enough to have anticipated that, but you never know,” Horton said. “That’s a tribute to them.”
Well-rounded production from the top of the order: At times last season, Oregon’s offensive strategy appeared from the bleachers to be, “Get a guy on and hope Healy comes up next.” There’s no Healy in this year’s lineup, but the Ducks have been much more balanced through seven games.
Along with his sparkling defense, Baumgartner is hitting .370 with a .989 OPS, and Mitchell Tolman is at a .292 average with a .975 OPS. Both guys seem to be blossoming in their second year with the program.
And the Ducks are enjoying bounce-back starts by Kyle Garlick, who was injured most of last season, and Aaron Payne, who struggled to get on base as a junior. Garlick is hitting .429 with an eye-popping OPS of 1.234 – prompting Loyola to walk him four times Sunday – and Payne has a .452 on-base average, up 84 points from last season.
“We’re going to miss Healy, but I think the depth of the (top) six guys might give us a little more consistent pop,” Horton said.
Inevitably, those veterans will experience slumps. But the Ducks have gone 7-0 so far with Scott Heineman starting just 5-for-31, numbers that are sure to turn around.
Pitchers thriving in new roles: Oregon’s best starting pitcher so far has been a true freshman, Matt Krook, and converted starter Jake Reed is three-for-three in saves chances as Sherfy’s replacement. Krook, the electric left-hander, has 19 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings, with an opponent batting average of .163 and three walks, while Reed is 1-0 with three saves in four appearances.
No. 3 starter Jordan Spencer has struggled in two appearances, perhaps opening the door for Tuesday’s scheduled starter, Jeff Gold, to claim a spot in the weekend rotation. And the Ducks have survived early inconsistency from lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger (2-0, 7.36) and No. 1 starter Tommy Thorpe (1-0, 1.38), who has eight strikeouts and six walks in 13 innings.
Put all of that together, and the Ducks are off to a perfect start through seven games. Now they’ll look to hold serve at home, Tuesday against Portland and then in a three-game series against No. 5 Cal State Fullerton that begins Friday in PK Park.
“We’ll re-evaluate where we’re at after Sunday,” Horton said. “It’s nice to be at home, but the Titans are awfully good.”
So too, though, have been the Ducks, with a mix of contributors both expected and unexpected through the first two series of the season.