A year later, UP baseball ready to shine
On March 8, 2020, the University of Portland baseball team beat Creighton 4-3 at Omaha, Nebraska. As the Pilots returned home with a 12-4 record to prepare for their West Coast Conference opener, optimism was high.
"We were feeling pretty good," coach Geoff Loomis recalled.
A couple of days later, the fun was over as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down that promising season before it really got started.
For the first time in nearly a year, the Pilots (weather and COVID-19 allowing) are noon scheduled to play ball at noon on Sunday, Feb. 23, when Seattle U visits rebuilt Joe Etzel Field for a doubleheader.
Recapturing the momentum the Pilots built early in 2020 shouldn't be a problem, according to fourth-year pitcher Eli Morse, a Cleveland High graduate.
"It wasn't really momentum. We were just a really good baseball team," said Morse, a Pilots' team captain who was 2-0 with a 3.10 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 20.1 innings in the aborted 2020 season.
As anxious as the Pilots were to prove themselves in the WCC a year ago, they are even more excited about the opportunity in front of them in 2021. Never mind that Portland was picked to finish seventh among the 10 teams by WCC coaches — the Pilots have their sights set on a conference title.
"We expect to be able to compete with every team in the country and to be one of the best teams on the West Coast," Morse said.
Every college baseball player is anxious to return to the diamond. But the drive to prove themselves — and the excitement of playing home games in a newly rebuilt Joe Etzel Field — figures to give the Pilots a little extra juice.
The goal, Morse said, is to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Normally, winning the four-team WCC tournament determines the automatic NCAA bid. This year, because of the pandemic, there is no WCC tournament, so the automatic bid will go to the regular-season champion.
Such a goal might have been a pipe dream when Morse arrived as a freshman in 2018. The Pilots last had a winning record in WCC play in 2011. But, there's a roster full of reason for optimism in 2021.
Portland returns every impact player from the abbreviated 2020 season.
The Pilots have four players on the West Coast Conference preseason all-conference team, tied with Pepperdine for the most. But, while the Waves are picked to win the conference in the WCC coaches' poll, the Pilots were picked to finish seventh in the 10-team league.
Portland's all-conference preseason selections are fifth-year senior pitcher Christian Peters, fourth-year junior shortstop Chad Stevens, redshirt freshman outfielder Jake Holcroft and third-year sophomore first baseman Trayce Tammaro.
Peters was 3-1 with a 0.63 earned run average (24th best in the nation) in four 2020 starts. He struck out 35 in 28.2 innings and emerged as the Friday starter.
Morse is another established right-handed starter. Second-year freshman Caleb Franzen, a left-hander, emerged as the third starter as a true freshman in 2020, with 18 strikeouts in 19 innings and a 2-1 record.
Fifth-year senior Connor Knutson is back in the closer role, his 22 career saves within two of the program record. Brett Gillis, a third-year sophomore, emerged as a dominant option out of the bullpen by going 12 innings without allowing an earned run.
The deep pitching staff should get good offensive support.
Stevens, batting second in the lineup, hit .299 with eight doubles, a home run, a triple and 16 RBIs. He stole five bases without being thrown out. A starter since his freshman season in 2018, the Fox Island, Washington, native is a smooth fielding shortstop.
Another strong fielder is sophomore first baseman Tammaro, whose seven home runs in 16 games last season ranked eighth in the country.
The spark in front of those hitters is Holcroft, who played like a veteran leadoff man in his first 15 college games. His .484 batting average ranked third nationally when the season was halted. Eleven of his 30 hits went for extra bases and he struck out only seven times and was selected a freshman all-American by Collegiate Baseball.
Last summer, the Upland, California, native was the batting champion of the West Coast League played at Stayton High, batting .368 for the Corvallis Knights.
"He's a hit collector and he flashes power," Loomis said of Holcroft, a left-handed hitter with speed.
The second leading hitter in the West Coast League last summer? Briley Knight, a redshirt sophomore center fielder out of Crescent Valley High in Corvallis who transferred to Portland from Utah.
Senior Henry Cheney, second-year freshman Christian Cooney (Central Catholic High), fourth-year junior Gabe Skoro (Lincoln High) and fourth-year junior Ethan Smith are experienced outfielders.
Returning outfielder/designated hitter Travis Turney is working his way back from knee surgery in the fall.
Behind the plate, fourth-year junior Hunter Montgomery has caught 73 games (66 starts) since arriving in 2018 from Corona, California.
Ty Saunders, Ben Patacsil and Sean Mulcare made infield starts as true freshmen in 2020.
Loomis points to improved defense, which produced a .980 fielding percentage, for the fast start in 2019. The sixth-year skipper expects his team should be even better defensively this season.
"Championship teams field at a real high rate," Loomis noted.
Morse said the defense behind him makes pitching easier.
"When you get a hitter to make light contact, they're going to make the routine play," Morse said. "And when you don't make a great pitch, they're going to make the play to bail you out."
So, the Pilots don't expect to give up a lot of cheap runs. They also expect to score in many ways with a lineup that is tough to pitch around, according to Morse.
"I don't want to pitch to our guys," he said. "I am looking forward to pitching against other teams."
One concession to the pandemic is the non-conference schedule, which is subject to change. It features regional foes to limit travel. Among those are three games against Oregon and Oregon State, and two apiece with Washington and Washington State. Included is a rare non-conference set with WCC rival Gonzaga.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.