As the sounds of drills and heavy machinery fill the air around Joe Etzel Field, the University of Portland baseball team prepares for another season.The Pilots, now adding sounds of gloves popping and bats hitting baseballs, will play their first opponent of the regular season today, University of Nevada.
Nevada will make the trip northwest as Portland will host the team. However, the Pilots and Wolf Pack won’t be playing on The Bluff. Portland will host Nevada in Ridgefield, WA, 25 miles north of campus.
In fact, the Pilots’ first 12 games of the season are ‘home’ games away from home in either Ridgefield or Hillsboro. Portland will play on five different home fields this season, not playing a home game on campus until early April. The furthest the Pilots will have to travel for a home series is against San Diego, which will take place at Goss Stadium in Corvallis, about an hour and a half away south of campus.
“We are not going to let that be an excuse,” said junior starting pitcher Eli Morse. “We have talked about, we do not care where we are playing, who we are playing or the weather.”
This year, their main focus is taking care of the ball on defense. Last year, the Pilots were tied for second to last in fielding percentage. The difference in the actual percentage is nominal, but the difference leads to a much harder time for pitchers. Not having a consistent home field that plays the ball the same way will make it tougher for Portland.
“There were games where we played really good defense and days we did not and would mess up the small things,” said starting shortstop Chad Stevens. “Every day we are trying to get that one percent better, try to be more consistent.”
The Pilots are also entering the season younger than in years previous. The 35-man roster boasts only six seniors. However, Portland does not see this as a problem. They will look to have some young guys fill important holes in their lineup.
One of the biggest losses was Daniel Lopez, who is now a graduate assistant with the team. Lopez was a team leader while hitting second in the lineup with an average of .275. Other major losses include Matt Kelly and Cody Hawken. All three started in almost all of Portland’s 52 games last season while all producing on the offensive side.
Portland does have some young talent on the bench who will look to fill the holes of those players who have left. Sophomore first baseman Trayce Tammaro is one of those players looking to make that step. Tammaro was voted all WCC honorable mention last season while hitting .261 in 51 games as a freshman.
“I think you could plug any guy in any of the freshman names,” starting shortstop Chad Stevens said. “They have all been very productive.”
Portland will still have some familiar faces in the lineup, highlighted by the return of junior shortstop Stevens. Stevens was recently bestowed All-WCC honors going into this season. He hit in the leadoff stop last year for Portland and started all 52 games. Stevens, who may be drafted following this season, is looking to build on an already strong career. The Fox Island, Washington native was named second-team all WCC last season and is poised to have another strong campaign.
The pitching rotation for Portland also has some big shoes to fill. Though going undrafted after graduation, Chris Clements put together a very impressive 2019 season. Posting a 7-1 record and an earned run average of 1.69, while holding opponents to a .181 batting average, Clements was stellar. His 1.69 ERA was good enough to rank eighth in the entire country for Division I baseball.
“That is the biggest question, you can’t really replace that,” said Head Coach Geoff Loomis. “I don’t know if you replace him 100%, but we have arms that we trust.”
However, though Clements is a big loss, the Pilots still have plenty of capable arms. Junior right-hander Eli Morse will most likely be the Friday starter as he was second in the rotation last season. Morse posted a 3.52 ERA last season in 79.1 innings of work, but only rendered a 2-8 record. But four of those losses the offense only provided one run.
“When you look at his sophomore year it is a little deceiving, but his stats line up with a Friday starter,” Loomis said. “He is a true competitor, his record did not reflect his performances.”
The third starting role was split between now graduated Kevin Baker and now senior Nate Packard. Packard had a positive win record of 3-1 but posted a 5.73 ERA in 55 innings on the hill. The third spot is still to be determined, but Packard could be the solution early in the season. Other names that could be in the mix for the third spot could be lefty redshirt sophomore Brad McVeigh or senior Christian Peters.
Portland’s real strength comes in their bullpen. Senior closer Connor Knutson is six saves away from passing the saves record for the Pilots after notching 10 saves last season to get to a total of 18. Another bright spot for the bullpen is senior Christian Peters who is a good late game option and had some strong outings last year, including striking out four in five innings against then ranked #11 Oregon State.
Though the Pilots are young, they have some depth, which is helpful when playing a 50-game season. Though Portland will have a merry go round of home fields this season, they will just have to focus on the game in front of them. There are big holes that were left by the departure of some key players, the success of the season could come down to the next man up stepping up.
Jamison White is a sports reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.