In late January, the University of Portland baseball team unwrapped their new bats, lathered their leather gloves and returned to action on Joe Etzel Field on a cold January day in preparation for their 2019 campaign.
The team is entering year four under head coach Geoff Loomis. Loomis has seen improvement in his three years, but has yet to see a .500 season.
The team went 23-30 overall and 12-15 in WCC play during the 2018 season. Notching 23 wins in 2018 was a step forward from the 2017 season, which saw 10 wins.
Portland played some of their best baseball toward the end of the season. The Pilots won six of their final 10, including a victory over Pac-12 opponent University of Washington and two wins against eventual WCC champion Pepperdine University.
Portland’s roster looks a bit different this year than last. Outfielders Ryan Kim and Beau Brundage and infielder Ryan Hoogerwerf were all major contributributors last year, and they will not be on the roster this season.
Brundage will be the biggest loss. He was drafted in the round 33 of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft to the Tampa Bay Rays. Brundage hit in the leadoff spot and posted an impressive .378 average paired with 12 doubles. Center field will be a focus as it will be tough to replace Brundage, who provided extensive range.
“Losing Beau on the last day of the draft was hard,” Loomis said. “The biggest gap we are going to have to fill is in center field. We also have to replace his 79 hits.”
Portland will turn to a couple key returning producers. Senior infielder Matt Kelly hit for a .317 average in WCC play last season and is a solid glove at second base. Senior outfielder Cody Hawken, who earned WCC preseason honors this year, is returning for his senior season and should give the Pilots a boost on both sides of the ball.
Sophomore infielder Chad Stevens will be a younger guy who Portland will be looking to for production. Stevens started all 53 games as a freshman while hitting .251 in the sixth spot in the lineup.
“Stevens came back from the summer and I do not know where he found it, but pitchers could not get him out in the fall,” Hawken said. “He is tearing it up.”
Stevens, with the rest of the team, will also look to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Portland as a team committed 67 errors last year, equating to a team fielding percentage of .966, an even 10 percentage points below the league average last season.
“Where we have to shore things up is defense,” Loomis said. “Our pitching staff did a good job of being competitive. If we want to take the next step we have to field the ball better.”
The Pilots will turn to experience in the infield to try and sure up the errors. Portland will look for Kelly and redshirt senior Daniel Lopez to be leaders in the infield. They will be throwing to a new target as freshman Tracye Tammaro will most likely take over duties at first base.
The biggest reload may come in the pitching staff. Loomis has 17 pitchers on the roster, more than any team he’s coached before. Two of the 17 pitchers will be expected to get innings in the field as well.
Starting pitching roles, however, are up in the air. Two of Portland’s three regular starters both graduated last year. This includes Camden Muller, who gave the Pilots 68.1 innings of work while holding opponents to a .245 batting average. Corbin Powers will be the other arm absent this season. Powers was tossed 70 strikeouts in 2018, settling at a record of 4-7 on the year.
Portland’s returning starter from last season is sophomore Eli Morse. Morse had an impressive season as a freshman campaign, leading the team in innings pitched and strikeouts. Portland will also most likely welcome back senior Kevin Baker to the starting rotation.
Baker missed most of last season due to an arm injury, but returned to the starting lineup at the end of last season. Baker started three games, throwing 11 innings and racking up 11 strikeouts and holding opponents to a .214 batting average. Baker led the team in strikeouts in 2017 with 79 in only 62.1 innings on the hill.
“I feel ready to get back into it and spend a full season with the team,” said Baker.
Portland is also returning their closer, junior Connor Knutson. Knutson had a stellar season last year as he saved eight games with an earned run average of 2.75 in 36 innings. Knutson held hitters under .200 while striking out 41.
The key for Portland will be bridging the gap between the starters and Knutson. With 17 arms on the roster, it gives coach Loomis a variety of options out of the bullpen.
This will be important, especially as the pitching staff is heavily filled with right-handed pitchers. Portland will undoubtedly be faced with tough matchups against left-handed hitting.
“There is a different mindset when facing a left handed hitter,” Baker said. “As a right handed pitcher you cannot be scared to pitch inside and work the bottom of the zone.”
Portland was voted to finish in the eight spot in the WCC in 2019 coaches preseason poll, exactly where the team finished a year ago.
Portland will need to take care of the baseball and not make the defensive mistakes they did last year if they want to prove the coaches wrong. Their offense remains a question mark with the departure of three of their top offensive weapons from last year.
Portland will open up their season on Feb. 15 on the road against the University of Hawaii. The Pilots will play their first 13 games on the road before playing their home opener at Joe Etzel field on Mar. 5 against Pac-12 opponent University of Oregon.
Jamison White is a sports reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at email@example.com.