Emerald roundtable: Hot Oregon baseball team will be tested against elite Cal State Fullerton this weekend

Oregon's Connor Hofman slides into second base during a double play against Cal State Fullerton on June 2, 2012. The Ducks beat the Titans 7-5 for their second win of the NCAA Regionals at PK Park in Eugene, Ore. (Emerald archives)

Oregon's Connor Hofman slides into second base during a double play against Cal State Fullerton on June 2, 2012. The Ducks beat the Titans 7-5 for their second win of the NCAA Regionals at PK Park in Eugene, Ore. (Emerald archives)

Posted by Emerald Sports on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 9:00 am.

Every week during baseball season, our sports staff will discuss various topics surrounding an upcoming Oregon series. Today, Emerald digital sports editor Victor Flores and sports reporters Chris Mosch and Andrew Bantly discuss the Ducks’ hot start, Tuesday’s game versus Portland and the big weekend series against Cal State Fullerton.

1) The Ducks are 7-0, but several of their games were close late. Is this a positive or negative?

Flores — It’s not a complete negative or positive, but I’d lean towards the negative side. Hawaii and Loyola Marymount are far from elite teams, and Oregon went down to the wire in all of its games against them. Even in their largest three wins (10-5 and 10-2 over Hawaii, 12-2 over LMU), the Ducks either held small leads or were tied going into the final three innings. It’s still hard to derive much meaning from seven games, but the fact that Oregon’s had to grind in each of its wins is concerning. This is still a top-20 team, but don’t be surprised if the Ducks falter once they face tougher opponents like Cal State Fullerton.

Mosch — Four of Oregon’s first seven wins have been by margins of two runs or less, which understandably has some Duck fans nervous considering that the first two series have been against teams that finished below .500 last season. However, the Ducks should expect to find themselves in lots of close games this season given their strong pitching staff and middling offense, which makes having an elite bullpen even more vital. The core of the bullpen has thrived so far, as Jake Reed, Darrell Hunter, Porter Clayton and Trent Paddon have allowed just one run (zero earned) and 11 baserunners in 16.1 innings. Garrett Cleavinger had a three-run hiccup against Hawaii, but he’s flashed an elite ability to miss bats (eight of his 11 outs have been strikeouts).

Bantly — Oregon’s has scored more than four runs in five of their seven games. So offense hasn’t been much of a problem for the Ducks so far, which is what many thought would be the weakness of this team. But pitching and defense has caused some of Oregon’s first seven games to be close. This team can’t afford to surrender 3 or more runs per game consistently, which is harder said then done. But because it is still so early in the season and pitchers’ arms are still warming up to game situations, I don’t see it as a problem. So far.

2) Which Oregon player has impressed you the most so far?

Flores — I figured Matt Krook would be good this year, but I wondered if he’d struggle coming out of the gate given he’s a freshman starting pitcher. He’s squashed all such doubts so far. Through his two starts, Krook has a 2.03 earned run average, 19 strikeouts and three walks in 13.1 innings. Tommy Thorpe has a better ERA (1.38) but Krook has easily been Oregon’s best pitcher (albeit in two starts), due to his elite ability to pound the strike zone and miss bats. The Ducks are lucky Krook decided to choose Oregon over the MLB.

Mosch — Kyle Garlick has been the middle-of-the-order bat that the Ducks needed after graduating Ryon Healy, producing a .429/.586/.667 slash line through the first seven games. We’re obviously working with small samples here, but an eight-to-three walk-to-strikeout ratio is always a sign of good plate discipline.

Bantly — Freshman A.J. Balta has really solidified the Oregon outfield. Though Balta is still sharing time with senior Connor Hofmann and freshman Austin Grebeck, he’s provided a bat that wasn’t known to be there entering the season. With Garlick and Tyler Baumgartner leading the team offensively, Balta makes the Oregon outfield possibly one of the best in the Pac-12. Balta is hitting .353 with two doubles, a triple and four RBI while only striking out three times. If Balta produces numbers like these on a consistent basis, head coach George Horton will have no choice but to keep the freshman in the outfield.

3) What will be the key for Oregon to win this weekend’s series versus a top 10 team in Cal State Fullerton?

Flores — Oregon’s lineup needs to step up, especially in high-leverage situations like it did against Hawaii and LMU. Fullerton has one of the best pitching staffs in the nation, especially among their starters. Thomas Eshelman has posted a 1.67 ERA and an absurd 103-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past two seasons, and Justin Garza and Graham Wiest aren’t far behind. Overall, Fullerton has posted ERAs of 2.47 and 1.95 in each of the past two seasons. Besides Oregon State, the Ducks probably won’t face a pitching staff even close to Fullerton’s level, so Oregon’s hitters can’t afford poor at-bats this weekend.

Mosch — Oregon was able to get away with defensive and baserunning miscues against Hawaii and LMU, but they will need to be flawless in those areas to win against Fullerton. The Ducks tightened up their defense against LMU, but there were a number of instances where they gave away outs on the basepaths. An Oregon baserunner was picked off in each game of the three-game series and Baumgartner made the cardinal sin of making the final out of the inning at third base during the first inning of game one. The Ducks need to be better disciplined on the basepaths in order to earn the series win.

Bantly — Oregon needs to control the game and the pitching staff needs to lead the way. Fullerton not only has a great pitching rotation but they have a solid offense as well. Fullerton is led by Clay Williamson (.455 batting average, six RBI, four doubles), Tanner Pinkston (.444 BA, four RBI), Matt Chapman (.344, one home run, six RBI) and J.D. Davis (.310 BA, two HR, two triples, and 5 RBI). Oregon can’t afford to let Fullerton gain momentum early in the game because it will be important to keep the Titans offense in check.

4) How will the Ducks fair tonight against Portland and this weekend against Fullerton?

Flores — The Ducks should handle Portland, although their penchant for close games could result in an unexpected loss in their first home game of the season. Fullerton’s 4-3 record doesn’t represent its ability. The Titans are one of the best teams in the nation and will give Oregon a test they can’t fully prepare for. The Ducks won’t get wiped off the field, but they will struggle, losing two-out-of three this upcoming weekend.

Mosch — Jeff Gold had a stellar first outing and should continue that success against a Portland team that finished last in the West Coast Conference in OPS last year. Fullerton will be one of Oregon’s toughest challenges of the year despite its deceiving 4-3 start to the season. The Titans boast one of the deepest rotations in the country, returning their weekend staff of Eshelman, Garza and Wiest, which combined for a 2.23 ERA and 0.89 WHIP last year. The pitching staff is so deep that freshman Phil Bickford — the 10th overall pick in last year’s MLB draft — has been working out of the bullpen for the Titans. Oregon’s Jordan Spencer failed to make it out of the fifth inning in both of his first two starts of the season and will need to turn in a spotless performance in order for the Ducks to have a chance at winning this series. Ultimately, I think Fullerton takes two of three in Eugene.

Bantly — Gold should get the job done without problems tonight as he did in Hawaii. Gold seems happy to have the mid-week role and treats it as if it was a weekend start. Oregon should look to win the series but will have to be content if they only leave the weekend with a single win. Though Oregon had some rough patches with Hawaii and LMU, Fullerton has struggled, too. The Titans have lost three of their seven games but will want to get back on track against Oregon. This weekend is going to be a big momentum swing for whoever can win the series, but don’t expect a sweep. I also expect Fullerton to win two of three.

Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415
Follow Chris Mosch on Twitter @chris_mosch
Follow Andrew Bantly on Twitter @abant3