By Rob Moseley
Two of the best in the country at what they do will face off this weekend at Howe Field.
That’s true of the two teams that will face off, when No. 1 Oregon hosts No. 3 Arizona State for a three-game series beginning Friday (5 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks). And it figures to be true the first time the Ducks come to the plate Friday evening, when the Pac-12’s best hitter, UO third baseman Courtney Ceo, faces ASU’s Dallas Escobedo, who is No. 2 nationally in strikeouts.
Ceo, a senior from Meadow Vista, Calif., entered this week hitting .480, which ranked fourth nationally. With four hits in Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep of Utah Valley, Ceo is now up to .487 entering the showdown with the Sun Devils.
One of the Ducks’ top hitters each of the last three seasons, the speedy Ceo has taken her game to a new level this season. A .268 hitter in Pac-12 play though she hit .410 overall as a junior, Ceo is hitting .518 in conference games this spring.
Ceo came into this season with 67 strikeouts and 31 walks in her career, but through 51 games as a senior she has 18 walks with 13 strikeouts. Over her last 11 games, Ceo has a ridiculous 13 walks and zero strikeouts.
“When you see those types of numbers, you know you’re seeing the ball well,” UO hitting coach James Kolaitis said.
Kolaitis, in his first season on the UO staff, had a lot to work with when taking over as Ceo’s hitting coach this season. She’s among the fastest players in the country, and worked with former UO assistant Blake Miller to become a dangerous bunter.
Under the tutelage of Kolaitis and UO head coach Mike White, Ceo is even more formidable as a senior. She’s worked to hit to all fields, keeping the defense on its toes and not able to anticipate the bunt. She’s got a better handle on opposing pitchers, and of her own swing, resulting in that improved strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Leading off for one of the country’s best offenses, Ceo said ironically that she feels free of pressure to get on base, because of the talent behind her in the order. That allows her to be even more selective at the plate, where she’s hitting more than 30 points better than anyone else in the Pac-12.
“When it’s a strike, hammer the zone, and when it’s a ball, take the walk and get on base,” Ceo said in outlining her approach.
Ceo’s ability to reach via the bunt is uncanny, seeing as how seemingly predictable it has become. But through hard work, she’s made the play almost indefensible.
Working with Kolaitis, Ceo reduced her tendency to be a pull hitter when she does take a full swing. In the past, when Ceo bunted primarily to third base, infielders could creep in, unafraid that she might hit it hard the other way.
“When a third baseman comes in expecting a bunt and she laces one hard foul, the third baseman starts thinking, ‘I don’t want to get too close,’” Kolaitis said.
Ceo has also become more inclined to drag bunts down the first-base line, a skill she began honing under Miller. Opponents tend to put their best, most athletic infielders at third, so attacking the other way makes sense. But it can be particularly tough for left-handed hitters, who see a heavy diet of pitches on the outer half of the plate.
And yet, seemingly at will, Ceo can deaden the ball with her bat, just a few feet up the first-base line. While it sits in the infield spinning in place, the pitcher and catcher converging, Ceo is flying up the line, easily safe.
“It clicked, and it worked for me,” Ceo said. “Understanding what you need to do to get your hands in the right position to get the ball down the first-base line is something I definitely had to work at, and continuously work at, because it’s not always there.”
Ceo’s next chance to test those skills is this weekend. The Ducks are playing their final regular-season series at Howe Field, before wrapping up the following weekend at Arizona.
The NCAA regional round begins May 15, but for Oregon, a matchup with the No. 3 Sun Devils and the powerful arm of Escobedo should have a postseason feel.
“I think that’s key,” White said. “I don’t think you want to go in (to the postseason) seeing off-speed stuff. Seeing good velocity and good movement will be good for us.”
Opposing hitters are batting .167 off Escobedo this season, third in the Pac-12 and just behind Oregon’s own Cheridan Hawkins. When Ceo and her .487 average step to the plate, something will have to give, and the Ducks are hopeful it won’t be their speedy senior leadoff hitter.