Underneath all the offensive flare, one area quietly slipped under the radar for Oregon last weekend: starting pitching.
Oregon’s starters struggled badly against Washington State two weekends ago, despite the team’s overall series victory. However, in a young season that has already seen so many ups and downs, there was another “up,” as the pitchers thrived en route to a four-game sweep of the Northwestern State Demons.
“It’s not going to be sunshine and rainbows all the time,” pitching coach Jake Angier said. “But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m having fun with it. These guys are young, and they’re growing and they’re getting better, and you can see it with their confidence in what they’re doing.”
Oregon’s four starters — Jace Stoffal, Logan Mercado, Leo Uelmen and Matthew Grabmann — combined to allow five runs in 22 innings, good for a 2.05 ERA. It came after Jackson Pace’s struggles forced him out of the rotation.
While the highs and lows have been apparent throughout the season, a look at the overall stats paints a picture of a staff that does a good job limiting hits but struggles to throw strikes. In 195 innings, Oregon has walked 119 batters, which amounts to a 5.49 BB/9. Add in the 30 hit batters, and the Ducks are surrendering 6.88 free passes per nine innings.
However, what’s kept the staff in check has been the .226 opponents batting average. The Ducks may be issuing more free bases than they’d like, but the lack of hits speaks to their potential and their ability to work out of jams, even when they are surrendering a few too many walks.
“If you’re going to be bad in an area, you want to make sure you’re good in the other area that matters,” Angier said. “Limiting baserunners is a big part of not giving up runs. Walks have been high; I think it’s something that’s indicative of a really young staff.”
Stoffal and Mercado are the relative veterans of the starting group, each in roughly their second “full” season of regular work. They each went six innings last weekend, with Mercado throwing 109 pitches after spending a few weeks in the bullpen. Stoffal and Mercado haven’t been exempt from the inconsistencies that have plagued this staff as a whole, but as time’s gone, they’ve begun to settle into a groove and show what they’re capable of.
“When you’re talking about Jace and Logan, you haven’t seen their best baseball yet,” Angier said. “They’ve been hanging in there doing their job, but I think the best is yet to come with those guys.”
Uelmen has stuck around in the rotation as well, despite owning a less-than-ideal 5.86 ERA on the year. He had one of his best outings against the Demons, exploiting their tendency to sit on fastballs as he held them to two runs in six innings.
Control hasn’t been as much of an issue for Uelmen as it has for some of the others, though; even in his rough outing against Washington State, he didn’t allow a walk. Ironically — or perhaps notably — he issued four walks in this most recent quality outing.
“To me, he doesn’t act like a freshman,” Angier said. “I think he’s probably got a little bit different perspective. His brother [Erich] pitches in the big leagues with the Phillies, and I think that can help when you’re around that and growing up around that. And so I think that he’s given us a different type of a presence as a freshman pitcher that it’s been nice to have.”
Grabmann — who won’t start this weekend because it’s a three-game series — has had a different experience than Uelmen. Hailed as one of the top pitching recruits in the country, he got off to a slow start with serious control issues. While those issues haven’t completely gone away, they’ve seen some development, and much like the team as a whole, Grabmann has been good at limiting hits.
Angier said he’s made some tweaks with Grabmann, mainly on syncing things up with his lower half. That’s allowed him to tap into some more of his velocity, reaching 94 miles per hour on Sunday. In his last three outings, he’s thrown nine scoreless innings while walking six.
“Those are the types of things you deal with,” Angier said. “With young guys, it’s going to be inconsistent sometimes with a delivery or with a pitch. And so you’re helping them grow in that process to really become more consistent, because we all know that’s what’s going to breed the most success in this game.”
Oregon’s pitching staff has been helped immensely by the contributions from its older members as well, allowing Angier to focus more on helping the younger guys. Graduate transfer Josh Mollerus has been utterly dominant as the closer; he’s yet to give up a run in 11 innings while striking out 18. D1Baseball recently named him the No. 23 reliever in the country. Senior Matt Dallas has also been superb, winning Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week and posting a 1.33 ERA in 20 1/3 innings.
“Those guys burn their boat on having a great year,” Angier said. “This is their last whack at it. They don’t have another year. One thing that we’ve talked about as a pitching staff is honoring that.”
Another veteran could be rejoining the mix soon as well: Isaac Ayon, who’s been out with an injury all season, has begun throwing and could be back as soon as next week. He would be a boost to Oregon’s rotation after he was the team’s best starter last year.
“We want him pitching for us. He’s that good, and he’s a competitor,” head coach Mark Wasikowski said. “He’s chomping at the bit. With everything he’s doing, I know he’s excited to get back to the ball club. We can’t wait to have him back.”
Oregon’s young pitchers certainly have those guys to look up to on this team, one which displays a nice veteran-freshman balance on both sides of the ball. This weekend against Arizona, it’ll be Stoffal, Mercado and Uelmen, looking to keep the momentum going and find the consistency that Angier talked about.
“For the most part, it’s just about learning how to prepare and take care of yourself throughout the week so that you can go out there and be successful on game day,” Angier said.