Oregon baseball: Ducks feel pressure to handle hobbling Utes this weekend

Oregon's A.J. Balta (33) is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a two run home run during the bottom of the third inning. The Oregon Ducks play the USC Trojans in the second game of their tripleheader  at PK Park in Eugene, Ore. on March 15, 2014. (Michael Arellano/Emerald)

Oregon's A.J. Balta (33) is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a two run home run during the bottom of the third inning. The Oregon Ducks play the USC Trojans in the second game of their tripleheader at PK Park in Eugene, Ore. on March 15, 2014. (Michael Arellano/Emerald)

Posted by Victor Flores on Thursday, Mar. 20 at 5:00 pm.

Last weekend, the Oregon State baseball team came into Utah’s Smith’s Ballpark and dominated. The Utes lost by a combined score of 19-2, averaged five hits per outing and never held a lead in the three games.

This wasn’t much of a surprise, as Oregon State is ranked fourth in the nation and Utah is one of the worst teams in the Pac-12. The current state of the Utes would seem to provide relief for Oregon (14-5, 2-1 Pac-12), who hosts Utah (9-10, 0-3) for a three-game series this weekend to wrap up a 15-game homestand. Oregon head coach George Horton said his players probably feel some pressure to take this series because of their in-state rival’s demolition of the Utes last weekend.

“As a coach, you kind of know who you think are the contenders in the conference and you do notice that they swept somebody,” Horton said.

The Ducks, coming off a series victory over USC, are ranked as high as seventh in some national polls, leaving them just three spots behind the Beavers, so Horton said there is some pressure for his team to match their performance. Plus, with the way Utah has performed since their first Pac-12 appearance in 2012, the Ducks are expected to win the series, at the very least. 

“Not being disrespectful to Utah, it’s one of those things that you think you might be able to get a sweep,” Horton said. “Especially when you get them at home.”

The Utes have struggled to hit each of the past two seasons, as not a single player with regular playing time has slugged or gotten on base at a .400 or better clip. They also didn’t have a batter with significant playing time eclipse a .300 batting average last season (only one player, Max Schuman, has done so this season). To make matters worse Tyler Yagi, Dallas Carroll, A.J. Young and Braden Anderson, who were supposed to be mainstays in the lineup, have missed large chunks of playing time due to injuries.

The pitching for Utah this season hasn’t been any better, especially from the starting rotation. After Bret Helton (2.70 earned run average), none of the three other Utes starters have posted ERAs under five. Their team ERA (4.76) is nearly two runs worse than their opponents’ combined ERA (2.83).

That doesn’t mean the Ducks will cruise. Oregon’s last encounter with Utah was a 10-3 loss to end the 2013 regular season (albeit with Oregon resting several starters), and Horton said some teams provide matchup problems for superior opponents. Plus the Ducks will likely be without third baseman Scott Heineman, who re-tweaked his shoulder last Friday after missing the previous nine games.

“I know he saw the doctor and the results weren’t real positive,” Horton said, who described Heineman’s status as day-to-day.

The Ducks have proven they can thrive without Heineman and the Utes don’t pose much of a threat. The Ducks still feel that pressure to measure up to the conference’s best, and they hope  the streak of winning at least two out three games against conference opponents doesn’t end anytime soon.

Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415