Hitting may come around for UP, and infield has experience

by: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Junior Travis Radke leads the pitching staff for a University of Portland team that has been picked by West Coast Conference coaches to finish seventh in the league, but nearly won a series at UCLA last week. The Pilots grueling schedule continues with four games this week at Moraga, Calif.When the schedule was made up a few years ago, the University of Portland baseball team had no idea that its first series of 2014 would be against the winner of the 2013 College World Series.

So, when the Pilots traveled to Los Angeles to face UCLA last week, most people likely thought UP would not be able to compete.

Those people were wrong.

In the opening game, the Pilots used four pitchers to hold the Bruins scoreless and put together just enough offense for an enormous 1-0 upset win. The Bruins ran away for a 12-1 win in game two on Saturday, but UCLA barely won the rubber match 4-3 in 11 innings on Sunday.

“UCLA was a good team with a good reputation, and we were playing at their ballpark, so overall I’m very pleased,” Pilots coach Chris Sperry says.

UCLA’s bats exploded for 16 hits in the middle game. Sperry says the score did not tell the whole story, though.

“With the exception of two or three innings late in the game Saturday, we competed very well,” he says.

And the Pilots bounced back and gave themselves an opportunity Sunday to win the series.

“It just didn’t work out,” Sperry says. “We hit a lot of hard balls that were right at people.”

Things won’t get a whole lot easier for Portland the rest of the season. The Pilots have a brutal non-conference schedule, playing against Pac-12 teams in Tuesday games throughout the season. And, on top of facing Oregon, Oregon State and Washington, the Pilots also will have to play against such teams as Kansas State and UC Davis.

“Our schedule is very difficult,” Sperry says. “We’re going to play a lot of well-coached teams with good players. Our midweek games are a real challenge for us, because we only have the opportunity to play Pac-12 opponents. There’s no rest for the Portland Pilots. It’s a tough day every day.”

Conference play against West Coast Conference rivals, which begins March 14 at Loyola Marymount, won’t be a walk in the park, either. The coach just hopes that the Pilots will be battle-tested and ready when it comes time for conference play.

“That’s the theory, right?” Sperry says. “You want to have a good preseason, you want to have a little confidence. That’s what you hope to get out of a schedule like this.

“But our conference schedule isn’t weak, either. I always find our conference to be extremely demanding. It will be a grind for us.”

Sperry is hopeful that the Pilots pitching staff will deliver throughout the season.

“Our pitching staff is going to be the strength of the team,” he says. “I hope it’s as deep as we need it to be. We have three starting pitchers and, really, four starting pitchers. We also have some young pitchers we’re throwing into the mix.”

Sperry plans on using junior left-hander Travis Radke, junior right-hander Kody Watts and junior right-hander Kurt Yinger as the weekend starters. The Tuesday starter could be sophomore righty Jackson Lockwood, although he is good in relief. That creates a dilemma for Sperry.

“He can be very, very valuable for us coming out of the bullpen,” Sperry says. “He pitched so well two different times (against UCLA) and got the win in the first game. You like to have a guy like that coming out of the bullpen on the weekend.”

The Pilots’ outfield is young, but the infield, anchored by senior catcher Bo Cornish from Liberty High, is filled with veterans.

“We have veteran guys in key positions,” Sperry says. “We have an experienced catcher.”

The Pilots did not hit well against UCLA, finishing the series 16 for 95 (.168) and producing just five runs. Sperry says he expects the hitting to progress, though. He says redshirt junior outfielder Turner Gill and junior infielder Cody Lenahan could have big seasons. Gill, from Madras High, hit .314 with 13 doubles and 30 RBIs — all team highs — in 2012, but missed most of last season with an injured oblique muscle. Lenahan batted .300 a year ago.

“We had a tough time getting our offense going against UCLA,” Sperry says. “But there are signs of us having a nice hitting team.”

A few more quality performances against quality opponents would give the Pilots enough confidence to carry them through the spring.

“If we come out of last weekend feeling like we could play with anybody, it’s a great first step,” Sperry says.

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