Pitching carries both teams, who could battle for Pac-12 supremacy

by: ERIC EVANS/UNIVERSITY OF OREGON - J.J. Altobelli,  a senior, has starred offensively and defensively for the Oregon Ducks. This season, he is  off to a .429 start at the plate, with eight runs scored in eight games  for 7-1 UO.College baseball is good in the state of Oregon these days — very good.

Oregon State is 8-0 and ranked either fifth or sixth in the four national polls headed into its opening home series of the season this weekend against Bryant University of Smithfield, R.I.

Bryant, a member of the Division I Northeast Conference, went 0-2-1 in its opening series against Houston Baptist. The Bulldogs will play four games in Corvallis, beginning with a 5:30 p.m. date Friday at Goss Field.

Oregon, meanwhile, is 7-1 and ranked between No. 6 and 14 in the polls after sweeping four games at Hawaii, taking two of three at home from Loyola Marymount and beating Portland Tuesday night at PK Park.

The Ducks face a stiff test this weekend, visiting Cal State Fullerton for three games beginning Friday night. The Titans, 8-0, are ranked No. 17 by Baseball America.

Finding ways

The last time Oregon State opened a baseball season 8-0 was 1962, when Ralph Coleman was coach, Cecil Ira was the All-America pitching ace and the opponents were Nevada, Portland State, Portland, Willamette and Linfield. That OSU team started 18-0 and 26-2 before losing its last two regular-season games to Oregon (1-0 and 3-2), then falling in the NCAA regional twice to Santa Clara.

Fast-forward more than a half-century, where Pat Casey is coach and the Beavers have prevailed against considerably more formidable competition, beating Utah Valley, Gonzaga and Cal Riverside (twice) in the Palm Springs (Calif.) Classic, then sweeping four games at San Diego State.

Oregon State is hitting at a .297 clip, but Casey notes the Beavers are “not exactly an offensive juggernaut.”

“We’re finding ways to win games,” said Casey, in his 19th season as the OSU skipper. “We’ve not reached our potential offensively, but we’ve gotten great pitching, and we’re playing defense at a high level.”

The Beavers have committed 10 errors — five by utility man Jerad Casper — “but that’s misleading,” Casey said. “I’ve never had a club defend better this early in the year. We’ve turned some big double plays, taken some hits away from guys ... the defense is miles ahead of the offense right now.”

Even without starters Ben Wetzler (back), Taylor Starr (shoulder) and Jace Fry (elbow), Oregon State’s pitching has been dominant. OSU hurlers have a Pac-12-best 1.12 ERA, with a .179 opponents’ batting average and .199 opponents’ on-base percentage.

Starters Andrew Moore (2-0, 0.66 ERA, .133 opponents’ batting average) and Matt Boyd (2-0, 1.17, .196 OBA) “have had two great starts apiece,” Casey said, and Dan Child (2-0, 2.61) has gotten the job done.

Moore, the 5-11, 180-pound freshman right-hander from North Eugene, has allowed six hits with three walks and eight strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

“Andrew throws the ball in the zone,” Casey said. “He’s not going to overpower you, but he throws three pitches for strikes, and he competes. He has been terrific.”

So, too, has been Boyd, the 6-3, 215-pound left-hander who came out of the bullpen as a junior last season. Boyd has yielded 11 hits, walked two and struck out 13 in 15 1/3 innings.

Seven relievers have combined to allow no runs in 30 innings, led by prize freshman Max Engelbrekt. The 6-3, 195-pound left-hander from Seattle has yielded one hit with no walks, five strikeouts and an opponents’ batting average of .043 in 7 2/3 innings. Englebrekt and 6-3, 210-pound junior right-hander Scott Schultz (three hits, one walk, three strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings) could wind up sharing the closing role.

“Our bullpen has been impressive,” Casey said. “Max is more of a finesse pitcher than Scott, but he comes right after you. He’s aggressive in what he does. Schultz has been really good, to. He’s capable of doing a lot of things, but he has been inconsistent in the past. If he gets consistent, he could be our closer. He won’t be if he doesn’t get more consistent.”

Even with the near-.300 team average, Casey said the Beaver bats aren’t clicking as he’d like.

“San Diego State’s first two starters were very good, Gonzaga had a good arm and Riverside’s closer was outstanding,” the OSU coach said. “After that, the pitching we’ve faced has been real average.”

The best bat has been sophomore outfielder Dylan Davis, who leads the team with a .440 average, two doubles and two triples.

“Dylan has been our best hitter so far,” Casey said. “He’s hitting pitches he didn’t hit last year. If he can stay consistent and protect Mike (Conforto), it’s going to make a big difference.”

Senior first baseman Danny Hayes (.353 with eight walks) “is swinging even better than the numbers show,” Casey said. Kavin Keyes (.318), Andy Peterson (.310), Joey Jansen (.308) and Jake Rodriguez (.292 with six RBIs) have all been productive.

All-Pac-12 first-team returnees Conforto (.300 with seven walks) and Tyler Smith (.290 with nine runs and six RBIs) “are pressing a little bit,” Casey said. “It’s been a little frustrating for them, but through no lack of effort. I’m not worried about those two. They’re always going to hit.”

Reinforcements are expected this weekend. Wetzler will start one of the games against Bryant on a pitch count. Starr should be ready to pitch in relief. And senior outfielder Ryan Barnes, who missed the first two weeks with a hamate bone fracture, will be available for “some duty, though I’m not sure how much,” Casey said.

Pitching leads Ducks

Oregon has been in a similar situation, getting terrific pitching but not much production at the plate. The Ducks are hitting .221 with one home run. They batted .131 in the three-game series against Loyola Marymount, plating six runs on two hits in Saturday’s win. The Ducks had three hits in a 3-1 win over Portland Tuesday night.

“We’ve faced some quality arms,” fifth-year coach George Horton said, “and the weather conditions have been pitcher-friendly — the wind blowing in at Hawaii, and the weather very cold and windy in our first two games in Eugene. But we have to hit better. For some reason, our left-handed hitters are scuffling. They’ll be fine, I’m sure, but they’re not off to a good start.”

Pitching has been Oregon’s strength, led by starters Tommy Thorpe, a sophomore left-hander (2-0, 0.75), freshman lefty Cole Irvin (2-0, 2.40) and sophomore righty Jake Reed (1-1, 3.27). Junior southpaw Jeff Gold (1-0, 1.04) was the other starter the first two weeks.

“Tommy and Cole have given us two solid starters,” Horton said. “Cole has a great arm and an impressive mentality. He doesn’t get shaken up much when things go sideways. He has a tremendous future.”

Junior lefty Christian Jones (four hits, no runs in nine innings, mostly in relief) has bounced back from Tommy John surgery and will likely be one of the weekend starters.

The bullpen is led by junior right-hander Jimmy Sherfy (six hits, no earned runs in six innings), freshman lefty Garrett Cleavinger (0-0, 4.91 in 3 2/3 innings) and junior righty Darrell Hunter (0-0, 3.86 in 4 2/3 innings).

“Sherfy is a little different than what he was last year,” Horton said. “He doesn’t have his best slider yet, but he has better command of his fastball. And so far this year, not beating himself. I’d rather see the base runners come by him throwing the ball over the plate.”

Senior J.J. Altobelli has been Oregon’s two-way star thus far, hitting .429 with eight runs while playing what Horton believes is the best shortstop in college baseball.

“J.J. absolutely spoils us defensively,” Horton said. “I’ve coached some shortstops with more range or arm strength, but I’ve never coached a more consistent, heady shortstop. He makes very difficult plays look so easy with his instincts.

“He’s never been one to have a gaudy batting average, but he’s the consummate offensive player who can run, hit behind runners and give quality at-bats.What he does for the team offensively is beyond the numbers. He makes everybody around him better because he works so hard.”

Junior first baseman Ryon Healy is hitting .345 with a homer and seven RBIs.

“That’s what we expect from a guy who hits in the middle of the order,” Horton said. “Make no mistake about it, Ryon is one of our leaders and a guy we need to have a good year.”

Sophomore center fielder Scott Heineman, a third baseman a year ago, is hitting .308.

“We knew all along he would be one of nine best offensive players, and he has picked up the outfield quickly,” Horton said. “He’s not our best defensive center fielder, but he is getting better every game.”

None of the other regulars are hitting over .259, including junior designated hitter Kyle Garlick at .095 and senior third baseman Ryan Hambright at .036.

Horton is hopeful Oregon will be better than his 2012 club that came within a whisker of reaching the College World Series.

“We’re deeper in a lot of areas and we’re more balanced offensively,” he said. “The pitching staff has more depth. Potentially, we’re better from top to bottom.

“The real key will be to recreate the magic in last year’s team in terms of relationships and camaraderie. Last year’s group was the most special I’ve ever been around — a group of kids who didn’t care who got the credit and really competed. We have a chance to be equally as good, or maybe better.”

Casey and Horton know the Civil War series could go a long way toward determining the Pac-12 champion, though there are plenty of other contenders, including UCLA, Arizona and Stanford.

The counting series between Oregon and Oregon State is May 17-19 at PK Park in Eugene. It’s the next-to-last weekend of the Pac-12 season.

“Oregon is going to be fine,” Casey said. The Ducks “have great pitching and just about everybody back from a very good club of a year ago. They’ll be in the thick of things, for sure.”

“The Beavers have gotten off to a tremendous start,” Horton said. “They’re absolutely dominating on the mound and are finding ways to score runs. They have an experienced lineup, with the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (Conforto) leading the way. What they’ve done to start the season has been very impressive.”

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