Rosenthal: Arizona series will make or break Ducks’ season

Freshman Thomas Walker sprints for home plate in the Ducks 8 - 1 win over the California Golden Bears. (Nate Barrett/Oregon Daily Emerald)

Oregon baseball travels to Tucson this weekend for potentially the biggest series in the modern era of Oregon baseball. The Ducks have a top-10 ranking for the first time since reinstatement and they head to the desert this week in first place in the Pac-12 conference. @@[email protected]@ @@[email protected]@ @@[email protected]@

The Ducks have a chance to host a regional this year — maybe even a Super Regional — and that puts them in uncharted territory. At their peak this year the Ducks were ranked eighth, and if you need an illustration of how unprecedented that was, there is none better than pitcher Jeff Gold’s @@[email protected]@response when he was asked by a reporter to comment on the pressures of being the number eight team in the country.

“We’re number eight? Cool.”

In their first week as a top-10 team, the then-No. 8 Ducks started the week the way they often did, with wins over Arkansas Pine [email protected]@[email protected]@ and Portland. Oh, and in that win over Portland, Ducks pitcher Jordan [email protected]@[email protected]@ threw a no-hitter. So, there’s that. @@[email protected]@

A solid outing from Alex [email protected]@[email protected]@ — what else is new — led the Ducks to a win on Friday night against Washington State, but then the Ducks’ season seemed to come to a screeching halt as the Ducks dropped the next two games to the Cougars and lost so badly to Oregon State that the word “uninspired” was thrown around in postgame interviews, which is never something you want to hear a coach say. @@[email protected]@

With Aaron [email protected]@[email protected]@ back in the lineup, however, the Ducks seemed to right the ship last weekend against California with a three-game sweep. Sure, the Bears are the second-to-last placed team in the conference, but the Pac-12 is probably the deepest conference in collegiate baseball, although SEC fans might disagree (which I think makes me right by default).

But Arizona ain’t Cal.

This is a team that leads the Pac-12 in almost every offensive statistic, though notably not in home runs. Just to name a few, the Wildcats lead the conference in team batting average, team slugging percentage, team on-base percentage, runs scored — I could go on. @@[email protected]@

That’s a bit troubling because when the Ducks have had problems this year it’s been against teams that can put crooked numbers in the board in a hurry. Duck pitchers, though they do have the lowest staff ERA in the conference, seem to have a tendency to pitch out of jams a lot more often than they’d like to.

With an opponent like Arizona that has the conference’s highest-scoring team despite only hitting 11 home runs all season, any pitching staff needs to be wary of getting every single easy out.

There seems to be an outside chance J.J. Altobelli @@[email protected]@might return to the Ducks’ lineup this weekend, at least in a limited role, and while it’s nice to think about the return of a consistent bat like Altobelli’s, this is no time to wait for players to get healthy.

That’s a lesson head coach George Horton @@[email protected]@has been preaching to the Ducks the last several weeks. With Altobelli and Scott Heineman out of the lineup, Kevin Shepherd and Thomas [email protected]@[email protected]@ have had to step up and fill the void, and they’ve both done admirably (Shepherd has looked particularly polished defensively).

Oregon still has to get through USC and Oregon State after this weekend, but this is their last head-to-head with the top half of the Pac-12. With or without Altobelli in the lineup, this weekend is big for the Ducks, but Horton is confident the Ducks can be successful regardless of which nine names he writes down on his lineup card.

“If we’re ever going to do anything in baseball that’s significant,” Horton said. “Somebody that wasn’t supposed to be a hero is going to be a hero.”

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