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Published: April 15, 2012
Oregon is not supposed to be this good. 24-10? That other team in the Willamette Valley, maybe. But not the Ducks. No, these Ducks lost too much in the offseason to be 24-10, and replaced it with too much youth, and suffered too many injuries, and can’t hit the ball, and are only playing baseball to begin with because that other team up North starting winning games and –
Clichés are usually clichés for a reason. You lose a lot to the draft, you’re stuck in rebuilding mode. You rely on too much youth, you’re probably not winning a whole lot of ballgames. But just because a lot of clichés are based on some truth, that doesn’t mean that truth is absolute. Case in point: your 2012 Oregon Ducks.
This team did lose a lot to the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft, and they are relying on a lot of youth. But this team is 24-10 anyway, a trend-bucking team that is more or less spitting in the face of conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom launched a five-pronged attack against the Ducks going into the season. Imagine conventional wisdom as personified by a drunk guy sitting next to you at the bar that just won’t shut up.
Conventional Wisdom #1: Tyler Anderson and Madison Boer are both gone. They were as good of a 1-2 punch as there was in the country last year, and now they’re playing the game in exchange for monetary compensation.
Conventional Wisdom #2: Alex Keudell is Alex Keudell, a decent back-of-the-rotation starter. Hardly a sexy name like Tyler Anderson. Now that was an ace.
Conventional Wisdom #3: The Pac-12 is the strongest, or nearly the strongest, conference in the country and you won’t even have Christian Jones to throw; your Saturday and Sunday starters will have a combined one collegiate start going into the season. And you expect to keep your heads above water in the Pac freaking 12?
Conventional Wisdom #4: Who’s in your bullpen, again?
Conventional Wisdom #5: Oh, and your hitting still kind of sucks.
All of these things were more or less correct at one point in time. Some of them still are. But one of the great things about this team so far? None of them have really mattered.
Alex Keudell wasn’t the attractive top-of-the-rotation starter most programs clamor for. Alex Keudell is a guy who has gotten a little better every season he’s been here and finally graduated to full-time starter his junior year. He’s a former walk-on. He’s a nice story, a competent starter, but he’s not ace material, right?
Conventional wisdom looks like it’s going to take one on the chin here. Keudell, to date, is 5-3 with a 1.92 ERA this year. We’re only halfway through the season, so naturally a comparison like this must be taken with a grain of salt, but simply for argument’s sake… that’s twenty five points lower than Tyler Anderson’s ERA last season. It’s thirty-five points lower than Madison Boer’s. Over his last four starts, he’s given up 2 earned runs in 32 innings. That’s a 0.56 ERA for those of you at home without an ERA calculator. And above all else, perhaps, in his last four starts – three against ranked opponents – he’s 4-0. An ace puts up nice statistics, sure, but at the end of the day an ace is an ace because your team can count on him to win a ballgame. That’s Alex Keudell.
Jake Reed and Brando Tessar did come into 2012 with one career start between them. That’s what happens when one guy is a freshman, and the other is a sophomore who was a primary reliever his first year in the program. The lack of proven ability as starters in a conference like the Pac-12 makes for some nervous prognosticators in the offseason. Hell, I was one of them. But here’s where the clichés don’t always ring true: a rebuilt pitching staff doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad one. Rebuilding doesn’t equal trouble, it means unknown. And Jake Reed has been incredible, a future ace if he isn’t considered one already. Brando Tessar has been one of the Pac-12’s best Sunday starters. Would it be nice to have Christian Jones right now? Of course. But our weekend series have been in extremely capable hands all the same.
The funny thing about our bullpen is that it was so porous last season I didn’t really care who we lost. Scott McGough? Great kid, I’m sure, but he sure blew a lot of saves. Every reliever we tried at closer in 2011 seemed to blow saves. It’s hard to be worse in that department than we were last year. Jimmy Sherfy can make things interesting, but consider the bullpen issues that plagued this program largely solved.
Okay, our hitting can still suck some of the time. But where we lack in gaudy numbers, we have proven adept at being prolific when it counts. Nobody gets the big hit every time, but the Ducks seem to come up big in important at bats more than they don’t. Combine that with a dominant pitching staff, and that’ll take you places.
Oregon is halfway through the Pac-12 schedule. Not only that, Oregon finds itself in a three-way tie for first place halfway through the Pac-12 schedule. They’ve played, and beaten, three of the four programs that most thought would be competing for the conference title. What does it all mean?
Kind of like clichés, not a whole lot. This is a team that probably should have swept Utah and UCLA, but didn’t. This is a team that probably should have been swept by Washington. This is a team that may not have swept Arizona State if any member of the Sun Devil’s 25-man roster had ever experience precipitation prior to touching down in Eugene. Oregon is a team that gets by on pitching, and limited-but-timely hitting, and defense. Defense is really the only thing you can count on from a game-by-game basis. The Washington series should remain a good reminder of what happens when a weak hitting team is only supported by decent pitching, instead of the dominant pitching we’ve become accustomed to over the last month.
I don’t mean to be a Debby Downer. Baseball is just a funny game. I’m not saying Oregon won’t win the Pac-12, or host a regional. We very well may do both of those things.
It’s just that Oregon’s baseball team is not like its football team. The baseball team needs a lot of things to happen in order to win games. This year, those small things have largely been going in our favor. A big hit here, a timely ground ball double play to get out of a jam, a pop fly sticking in playable foul ground. We saw what happened last year when almost nothing fell in our favor.
I guess my point is this: we’re in first place, and enjoy it. But don’t get too caught up in talk about hosting Regionals and looking ahead to Super Regionals and where to place the Pac-12 championship trophy in the Cas Center. Just enjoy the ride. Don’t get too down if we drop two of three to Cal, or if we fail to sweep a team we probably should, or we drop too many winnable midweek games. Stuff happens in this game.
Just enjoy the good times as they’re rolling along. Taking two of three from Stanford is a big deal. Stanford has a nationally prominent program, and we’ve now won three consecutive series against them. Three!
Normally, I’d like to delve deeper into whatever series just took place, but since this was the midway point of Pac-12 play, I thought a general overview of the season was in order. In a way, everything I touched on above essentially played out this weekend: Keudell and Reed were all but unhittable, combining for 16 innings and 1 run given up. We didn’t score a ton of runs, but we scored enough. Ryon Healy went deep in game two to blow things open. Tessar experienced some discomfort in game three, and left early. Our pitching Sunday was just pretty good, instead of dominant, and we couldn’t score enough runs to match a modest total given up (four).
We’ve got Arkansas Pine-Bluff coming up Monday, and we meet Portland in Salem on Wednesday. Arkansas Pine-Bluff got reamed by the Beavs this past weekend, Portland has long since been a midweek thorn in our sides. Then we get Wazzu at PK next weekend. The Cougs are 18-14 on the season, 5-6 in the Pac-12. The only conference series they’ve taken has been against Utah, but they also haven’t been swept by anyone. They’ve taken games from Arizona and UCLA. They’re a good hitting bunch.
I’ll leave you with today’s fun fact: dating back to the end of last year, we’ve won five of our last six Pac-12 series. Those series wins? #6 Oregon State, Utah, #14 Arizona State, #5 UCLA, and #6 Stanford. In our last 16 games against ranked opponents, we’re 13-3. That ain’t half bad.