Oregon baseball’s season has operated in streaks so far. The Ducks opened with a four-game sweep, then suffered a three-game sweep. They responded with five consecutive wins, but now, they’ve lost three in a row again. Their 9-6 overall record hardly paints the whole picture.
The story, for much of the season, has been the freshman pitchers on Oregon’s staff. All the preseason skepticism was directed at these youngsters, and at first, they exceeded even the wildest of expectations. But they found themselves humbled in Oregon’s sweep to UCSB, then even more so in the Ducks’ 16-0 loss to UCLA and non-conference loss to Niagara.
“A week ago, they were throwing really, really good. A lot of the questions were, ‘Wow, these guys are really throwing well,’ and ‘What are you doing with them to get them to throw so well?’ and ‘yada yada yada,’” head coach Mark Wasikowski said, following Wednesday’s 8-5 loss to Niagara. “That’s how quick things can change. When they have a bad outing or whatever, now people start going, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happened?’”
Now, with a collection of highs and lows under their belt through the team’s first homestand, it’s hard to know what to make of this Oregon staff. But it’s evidence of the learning curve that Wasikowski predicted would occur, one that has taught and matured these young pitchers with the harsh realities of experience and failure.
Through the first three weeks, Leo Uelmen and Jackson Pace stood out from the pack as the two freshmen who’d had the most early-season success — Pace especially. The 6-foot-5 soft-tosser became one of just four freshmen in Oregon history to record quality starts in his first two collegiate starts. He went six innings each time, allowing just one earned run between the two outings. He started the year as the team’s fourth starter, but he’d already been promoted to their third starter with his team-low 1.80 ERA.
Then on Sunday, he gave up eight runs in 1 1/3 innings.
Leo Uelmen has had a similar, though less extreme, trajectory. He had a 2.51 ERA through his first three starts, but he gave up five runs in four innings against UCLA while only striking out one.
Interestingly, Matthew Grabmann and Turner Spoljaric have settled in below Uelmen and Pace on the depth chart, at least for now, despite getting the most preseason hype. The two Canadians have shown quality stuff, but their struggles have been command-based. Grabmann has given up just six hits in 13 2/3 innings, but he’s also issued 16 free passes.
That’s a trend that’s spread throughout the entire pitching staff — getting behind in counts, failing to put hitters away and surrendering walks.
“We’re just trying to get the young guys to believe in themselves and to be able to trust their stuff,” Wasikowski said. “Getting hits is one thing, and free bases is a totally different field. And we’re trying to get them on the aggressive.”
Looking at the overall stats tells a strikingly similar story to last year. Walks and hit batters have been Oregon’s Kryptonite, and there’s no way around it. The Ducks have issued 87 walks in 133 innings, which amounts to an ugly 5.89 BB/9. Add in the 20 hit-by-pitches, and you’re left with a catastrophic 7.24.
They’re actually limiting opposing hitters to a .215 average, so hits aren’t the problem (though the 20 home runs they’ve allowed have been an issue). Put simply, this team is allowing way too many baserunners right now. They’ve issued 22 free passes in their last 21 innings during this three-game losing streak, one in which they’ve allowed 32 total runs.
“That’s painful at times, as we can tell,” Wasikowski said. “But still yet, it’s something you’ve gotta stay patient [with]. It’s not a ‘yell and scream at somebody.’ It’s not like they’re not trying. If anything, they might be trying a little bit too hard.”
Jace Stoffal is the veteran of the rotation, even though he’s still relatively young himself, with less than a year of collegiate pitching experience. As he’s settled back into the mix after a minor injury, he’s tried to pick up his teammates and help them through their struggles.
“Pitching’s hard,” Stoffal said. “So I just try to take one-on-one time, and I talk to them: Just stay humble, it’s pitching, it’s early in the season… It’s probably hard as a freshman. I know it was hard last year to understand that my first year, so just telling them to be confident, throw pitches over the plate — good things are gonna happen.”
This weekend, Oregon will play its second Pac-12 series of the year after going 1-2 against UCLA. It’ll be the first road trip for this team, playing three games against the 13-3 Washington State Cougars. The Ducks will likely roll with a rotation of Stoffal, Uelmen and Pace, though Grabmann could also get a shot, with Spoljaric available in long relief.
They’ve experienced college baseball. They’ve experienced Pac-12 play. Now it’s time to see if they can take the lessons they’ve learned and find some consistency going into the rest of the season.
“They’re young. They’re gonna have some bumps in the road,” Wasikowski said. “We’re gonna stay confident with them and make sure that they hopefully believe in themselves. That’s the most important thing.”