Emerald roundtable: Oregon baseball begins Pac-12 play this weekend against USC

Oregon Ducks baseball players congregate on the pitchers mount between innings. The Oregon Ducks host the Ohio State Buckeyes at PK Park on March 8, 2014. (Taylor Wilder/Emerald)

Oregon Ducks baseball players congregate on the pitchers mount between innings. The Oregon Ducks host the Ohio State Buckeyes at PK Park on March 8, 2014. (Taylor Wilder/Emerald)

Posted by Emerald Sports on Thursday, Mar. 13 at 7:00 pm.

Every week during baseball season, our sports staff will discuss various topics surrounding an upcoming Oregon series. Today, digital sports editor Victor Flores and sports reporters Andrew Bantly and Madison Guernsey discuss Oregon’s performance in non-conference play and preview the Ducks’ first Pac-12 series against USC this weekend at PK Park.

1) How would you characterize the Ducks’ non-conference performance: better, worse or as good as you expected?

Flores — The Ducks have performed almost exactly as I expected them to. They handled their first two series against Hawaii and Loyola Marymount, although they were close late in every game until their 8-2 win over Portland on Feb. 25. The next series against Cal State Fullerton also wasn’t surprising. The Ducks battled in the final two games but still got swept, which isn’t the end of the world against the No. 9 team in the nation. They then bounced back against Seattle and Ohio State with several dominant wins and just one loss. The only surprising outcomes of the non-conference schedule was their 20-4 win over the Buckeyes on Sunday.

Bantly — It has to be better than expected. The pitching is coming together, like many staffs would so early in the year, and the defense is becoming more and more consistent. But what makes this team’s non-conference performance better than expected is how well they have performed offensively. As a team in its past five games, Oregon has hit .313 and scored 42 runs. At the heart of the lineup, Tyler Baumgartner, Mitchell Tolman, and Kyle Garlick have proven, thus far, that they can provide enough offensively to lead this team. The offense has also seen impressive production from freshmen A.J. Balta, Austin Grebeck and Mark Karaviotis.

Guernsey — In terms of overall record, Oregon’s 12-4 start is about what I expected. The disappointing part of that is the three losses against Cal State Fullerton, by far the best team the Ducks have faced. The then-fifth-ranked Titans looked like the far superior team in all three games and brought to light some needed areas of improvement for the Ducks. As far as overall play, Oregon has, at times, been inconsistent on the mound and sloppy and out of sync defensively, two aspects George Horton’s clubs have excelled in in years past.

2) What do the Ducks need to improve the most going into Pac-12 play?

Flores — The Ducks need to cut out the little mistakes, especially on the base paths. They’ve been picked off several times, gotten caught in rundowns, been thrown out attempting to steal home and more. They’ve been decent in the field and the bats have been better than expected, but this team won’t be able to blow out every team in the Pac-12, so they’ll need to avoid the little mistakes in order to succeed in one of college baseball’s toughest conferences.

Bantly— The Ducks are a mediocre 5-4 at home. Though three of their four losses at home are from a Cal State Fullerton sweep, this series against USC needs to set the tone for the rest of the season at home, especially in Pac-12 play. Since their reinstatement in 2009, Oregon has beaten USC five out of six times at PK Park, and this series presents a good opportunity for the Ducks to widen that margin. It is way too early in the season to say the Ducks play poorly at home, but in order to have success against Pac-12 teams that are quickly arriving, they need to take advantage of home-field advantage.

Guernsey — Bullpen consistency. Two of Oregon’s primary relievers (Darrell Hunter and Garrett Cleavinger) have had some early-season struggles which they’ll need to iron out in order for Oregon to reach its goal of the College World Series. Cleavinger, in particular, hasn’t been his usual self, posting a 7.94 ERA and a .286 opponent average in 5.2 innings pitched. As a whole, the bullpen has been brilliant in spots but mostly inconsistent, giving up eight earned runs in four losses and nine earned runs in 12 wins. While poor offense and starting pitching are to blame for losses, the bullpen has been equally messy in those games.

3) Do you think Jeff Gold will maintain his Sunday starter status throughout Pac-12 play?

Flores — I believe he will. He’s been steady all year, averaging 6.25 innings per start with a 2.52 earned run average and a 23-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio (the three walks are probably his most most impressive stat). It’s still early in the season, and Gold has yet to face a tough opponent, but even if he stumbles a bit, his control and command are probably good enough to keep him from losing the job.

Bantly — As of now, yes. There is no other pitcher that has proven to Horton that he can do a better job. Junior Jordan Spencer and sophomore Porter Clayton were both given a start before Gold got his opportunity on Sunday. Though Clayton did start against Fullerton, Gold’s performance on Sunday against Ohio State was impressive because he was able to consistently throw strikes. But the fact is that Gold is winning games. In fact, Gold leads the nation in wins and has a 2.52 ERA. However, the leash should stay short for Gold in the Sunday slot.

Guernsey — It looks that way. He’s been the most consistent not just among the Sunday starter auditioners but also among regular starters Matt Krook and Tommy Thorpe. In each of his four starts, Gold has thrown at least five innings while giving up three runs or less. He has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 8:1 and a WHIP of 0.8, better than all starters excluding Brando Tessar (1 start, 3 innings pitched). Even if he slips up in his next start, Horton has praised Gold and expressed his confidence him going forward.

4) How will the Ducks do in their series against USC this weekend?

Flores — This is Oregon’s second-toughest series up to this point behind Fullerton. USC is 9-6 but has played a tough schedule and most of its losses have been close. The Trojans might not be as deep as the Ducks, but I expect them to come into PK Park and keep every game close, stealing two out of three from the Ducks.

Bantly — Oregon wins two out of three. The Saturday and Sunday games are the question marks for me because Horton is still trying to figure out the “Krook equation,” as Horton put it after Sunday’s game. Horton talked about his pitch calling for Krook and how maybe he is trying too hard to call the swing-and-miss pitch. Also, Gold’s start will be a question because he’s a pitcher that will live and die in the strike zone. So it will be interesting to see if he can continue to be dominant after his last outing against Ohio State or if will he struggle to begin Pac-12 play.

Guernsey — The Ducks win two out of three, but it won’t be easy. USC’s been an interesting team so far this season. They’re loaded with talent, but have come out on the losing end in most of their games against tough competition (2-5 versus ranked teams*). Oregon has a clear advantage in two starting pitching matchups, with Saturday’s game (Krook and his 2.19 ERA vs Bob Wheatley and his 0.35 ERA) shaping up to be a dandy that will come down to Krook’s ability to rein in his wildness. The Trojans haven’t displayed much power this season but have two everyday starters hitting over .400 and two more above .300. The Oregon pitching staff will be tested and has an opportunity to solidify itself as an elite unit.

(*rankings include five major college baseball polls: Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, USA Today Coaches, NCBWA & Perfect Game).

Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415
Follow Andrew Bantly on Twitter @abant3
Follow Madison Guernsey on Twitter @guernseymd