by Rob Moseley
It's a little early on Oregon baseball's calendar for a major midterm examination, but the Ducks face just such a test this weekend at PK Park.
Freshly 8-0 after a win Tuesday over Portland, the No. 9 UO baseball team hosts No. 5 Cal State Fullerton for a three-game series beginning Friday at 6 p.m.
The matchup will conjure the past — UO coach George Horton is a Fullerton graduate who coached there as an assistant and head coach from 1991-2007 — and also have major future implications, as the sort of nonconference series that can greatly impact whether a team earns the right to host NCAA regional rounds in the postseason.
"It isn't just another opponent; it would be ludicrous for me to say that, on a personal basis," said Horton, Fullerton's head coach from 1997-2007, including the 2004 College World Series championship season. "But like any other top-10 team, it's exciting. That's why I coach at Oregon, is to play these types of games.
"Right now we're 8-0 and people think we're pretty good. We're about to find out."
The Titans (4-3) began the season ranked No. 4 by Baseball America, and as high as No. 1 by a handful of other outlets. Fullerton lost to Washington State to open the year, and later USC and San Francisco.
Oregon swept series against Hawaii and Loyola Marymount before beating the Pilots on Tuesday. Despite the disparity in records, though, the Ducks and Titans are remarkably similar statistically; Fullerton has a .381 on-base average and .394 slugging average with a 1.95 ERA, while Oregon gets on base at a .368 clip and is slugging .396, with a 2.34 ERA.
Fullerton last visited Eugene in 2012, during the NCAA Regional round, and lost to Oregon during the Ducks' march to Super Regionals. Oregon won 7-5 that day, and was surely thankful have such a closely contested battle at home rather than on the road.
Home-field advantage for regionals will be determined following the regular season, and could hinge on the results of significant nonconference matchups such as this weekend's at PK Park.
"It's still really early to think about that," UO second baseman Aaron Payne said. "We've got a lot of business to take care of before that's on our minds."
"We've got to treat this as just another game, and play the game, not the team," said Friday night's scheduled starter for the Ducks, Tommy Thorpe. "So that's what we're planning on doing.
"In the back of our minds it's obviously there — that wouldn't be authentic if I told you it wasn't — but at the same time, we've got to play the game. All the preparation you did in the fall and winter should carry you through and give you the best chance to win."
Heineman day-to-day entering the weekend: After playing third base and hitting leadoff in each of the Ducks' first seven games, Scott Heineman missed Tuesday's victory over Portland with a shoulder strain suffered Sunday at Loyola Marymount.
Horton said Heineman was day-to-day. If he can't play this weekend, the Ducks figure to stick with the alternate lineup they fielded Tuesday, with Mitchell Tolman moving across the infield to third base and freshman A.J. Balta playing at first.
Balta was a high school second baseman, primarily, and said he grew more comfortable at first on Tuesday as the game wore on.
"In this program we have a standard," Balta said. "It requires a lot of memorization — tons of plays, tons of footwork. Just the little things that make the team complete. That's a position that, in this program, not a lot of people can fill in."
Balta started the previous four games in left field, and is second on the team with a .400 batting average through eight games. Heineman was off to a slow start, with five hits in 31 at-bats.
Clayton gets the call to start Sunday: Sophomore Porter Clayton is scheduled to start Sunday's series finale at noon, after Thorpe gets the call Friday and freshman Matt Krook starts Saturday's 2 p.m. game.
Clayton will replace Jordan Spencer in the weekend rotation, after Spencer allowed 5 runs in 7 2/3 innings over two starts at Hawaii and Loyola Marymount. Clayton pitched two scoreless innings Tuesday in relief of Jeff Gold, who also was considered for Sunday's start along with freshman Trent Paddon.
"He's a big, tall left-handed pitcher," Horton said of Clayton, who missed the last two seasons while on a church mission. "The ball comes out of his hand really well, and he'll touch 92 sometimes. He's got a good feel for a change-up, he's got command of the fastball to all four corners, and he's got a pretty good breaking ball at times."