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Paul Danzer on Baseball: Portland hopes to have Joe Etzel Field rebuilt by end of season

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Eli Morse, a Cleveland High grad, returns as the Friday starter for the Portland Pilots.As rebuilding seasons go, 2020 figures to be a generational one for Portland Pilots baseball.

In part, that's because there is a mix of young talent and a veteran presence that coach Geoff Loomis believes can make Portland competitive in the West Coast Conference.

But the bigger rebuilding project is to Joe Etzel Field.

The Pilots' home is in the midst of a rebuild that will force the 2020 team to play home games elsewhere until April. That starts Friday as Portland opens a four-game series against Nevada at the Ridgefield (Washington) Recreation Complex.

In addition to playing just north of Vancouver, the Pilots have home games scheduled for Ron Tonkin Field in Hillsboro, Goss Stadium at Oregon State and Porter Park at Concordia University.

The first games on the UP campus are scheduled for early April, with seating only along the right-field berm. The Pilots hope to play their final series of the season, May 15-17 against Saint Mary's, with the full stadium open.

Loomis said the stadium renovation was needed and will help the program thrive. But his focus is on remaking a team that in 2019 went 7-19 in WCC play and 18-8 out of conference.

He expects his fifth Portland team to be much improved defensively. Prior to taking over the baseball program at his alma mater, Loomis guided Pacific Lutheran for 13 years and had teams that ranked among the best in the nation on defense.

"We've not in my time here played good enough defense to win at a high, high level," Loomis said. "This year, that's going to be one of our main focuses. We have great depth on the infield. We've got speed in the outfield. I feel like we're going to take a big step forward on the defensive side."

Improved defense should help a pitching staff that had solid numbers in 2019 but struggled on the middle day of three-game series.

Junior shortstop Chad Stevens is a preseason all-WCC pick after earning second-team all-conference recognition last spring, when he was the Pilots top hitter (.284). He is expected to hit in the middle of the order.

"We'll try to get him as many important at bats as we can," Loomis said. "He's a special player. Can really run. Big arm. Can play great defense and can hit."

The other returnee on the infield is first baseman Tracye Tammaro, a WCC all-freshman selection after leading the Pilots with a .406 on-base percentage in 2019.

Second base and third base will be manned in some configuration by freshmen Ty Saunders, Ben Patacsil and Jake Tsukada.

Improved speed should help the Pilots run down more balls in the gaps. Center field will be manned by freshman Christian Cooney out of Central Catholic High or speedy junior Ethan Smith, a transfer from Bellevue Community College.

Redshirt freshman Jake Holcroft will play left field and bat atop the lineup after last summer setting a West Coast League hits record with 82 in 53 games wikle playing for the Corvallis Knights.

Among those who return with limited experience in the Pilots outfield are junior Travis Turney (who had a strong summer and fall, according to Loomis), junior Gabe Skoro (ex-Lincoln High) and senior Henry Cheney.

Improved outfield play should help an experienced group of pitchers, including Cleveland High grad Eli Morse.

"We're pretty excited about the pitching staff," Loomis said. 

Leading that staff is Morse, a junior right-hander who for the third season will be the Pilots'

Friday starting pitcher. Morse finished 2-8 last season but was honorable mention all-conference after posting a 3.52 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 79.1 innings.

The Pilots also have a proven closer in senior right-hander Connor Knutson, who has 18 career saves and needs seven to break the program record. 

Senior Christian Peters, a sidearm throwing right-hander, will get a chance to start after being one of the Pilots' main relievers last season.

Milwaukie High grad Brad McVay is recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in the fall, but the hope is he'll be available by April and could fill the No. 2 spot in the rotation. Each of the last two summers, the left-hander has been named to the all-WCL team while pitching for the Portland Pickles.

Wyatt Stanley, a hard-throwing right-hander who transferred from Edmonds Community College, is another candidate to be a starting pitcher.

Sophomore right-hander Brett Gillis threw only 10 innings last season but is a potential set-up man out of the bullpen who throws in the low-90s.

Two experienced catchers will work with those pitchers: senior Dutton Elske and junior Hunter Montgomery. Elske, out of Lakeridge High, has played 81 games (72 starts). Montgomery hit a team-best nine home runs last season.

Portland hit 52 home runs in 52 games last season, but Loomis expects this team won't rely as much on the long ball.

"There are some guys that can drive a baseball out of the yard. But we've got more team speed and more skill," Loomis said.

"We're looking to manufacture runs. We've got more team speed. We've got more skill guys that can handle the bat and do several different things. Our offense is going to be a little different this year."

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