By winning five of nine conference series last season, the Portland Pilots baseball team showed it can make noise in the West Coast Conference.
But to get to the next level, and contend for a top-four finish and place in the WCC tournament, the Pilots must avoid getting swept in any of their three-game conference weekends, the first of which arrives this week with afternoon games Friday through Sunday at San Francisco (9-5).
"It's going to take some series where we grind out a win on a Sunday," fourth-year UP coach Geoff Loomis says. "The biggest thing from last year is just avoid sweeps."
The Pilots have started 2019 on the upswing, winning three of four games at Hawaii, then taking five of eight against three teams in Texas, rallying for a home win over Oregon and going 4-0 at home last weekend against Northern Colorado.
With six consecutive wins, the Pilots have their longest win streak since 2012, and their 13-4 record is the best start for the program since that year as well.
"Any time you can roll into conference with some confidence as a group is great," senior infielder Matt Kelly says. "We're just having fun, playing loose. That's something we've been able to do is just play loose as a group. We put a ton of work in in the fall and the winter. I think everyone understands that, so we're able to play loose and have some success early."
Kelly, a Wilsonville High grad, is one of five returning starters among position players from the 2018 team that finished 23-20, 12-15 in the WCC. He points to the strong offseason — possible for him because he was healthier than during the previous offseason — as evidence that he and his fellow seniors are locked in to making the most of their final college season. The seniors met six or seven times in the offseason to discuss their aspirations and how to accomplish them.
They came up with the motto: Protect the culture.
"That to us just means we're a family and we've built something special here with how close we are and how passionate we are about this game," Kelly says. "So we want to protect that by doing things the right way every day."
Kelly started the season on a tear. He had three home runs and four doubles in his first 45 at-bats. Through Sunday, he is hitting .254 with four homers and 13 RBIs.
"It's what I was expecting of him. Its the type of hitter I thought he would be," says Loomis, noting that nagging injuries held back Kelly a season ago.
Third baseman Danny Lopez (.298, 11 RBIs), left fielder Cody Hawken and center fielder Jace McKinney (.273) also are senior returning starters. McKinney played infield last season, but fills the center field shoes of Beau Brundage, who is a rookie in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
Hitting to the opposite field is part of the story for the Pilots' hot bats.
"They've really worked hard in the offseason on hitting the ball the other way. Letting the ball get deeper and not rushing out there. And swinging at better pitches because of it," Loomis says.
Of the seniors, Hawken has had the slowest start, after leading Portland in home runs (10) and RBIs (36) as a junior and batting .340 in conference en route to first-team WCC recognition as a junior. He's batting .203 with one home run, six doubles and nine RBIs.
The other returning position player is leadoff hitter Chad Stevens (.286), who started every game at shortstop as a freshman.
Another sophomore, Hunter Montgomery (.300, four HRs, 19 RBIs) provides power in the middle of the order. He's the designated hitter when not catching.
"He's got incredible power and quick hands. Even when he doesn't catch the baseball well, he still seems to find enough power in his bat to drive the ball out of the yard," Loomis says.
Freshman first baseman Trace Tammaro (.345) is strong defensively and learning to hit at the college level, according to Loomis.
Blake Porter, a junior college transfer from Las Vegas, is the right fielder and is hitting .341. Junior Dutton Elske from Lake Oswego splits catching duties with Montgomery.
On the mound, Portland's Friday starter for the second year in a row is right-handed sophomore Eli Morse out of Cleveland High. Morse threw a team-high 82 innings as a freshman, striking out 71 and posting three wins. He's 2-0 this season with a 2.49 ERA, and 25 strikeouts to six walks in 25 1/3 innings.
Morse and closer Connor Knutson, a junior right-hander from Sammamish, Washington, received all-conference recognition in 2018. Knutson has started this season with six saves, a win and a spotless ERA through 12 innings and nine appearances.
"He's a really quality back-end pitcher, and we're going to use him as much as we can," Loomis says.
Kevin Baker, a right-hander from Pasadena, California who missed much of last season with a dead arm, returns to the rotation for his senior year. He was a second-team all-WCC selection in 2017.
A pair of transfers bolster the pitching staff. Chris Clements, a right-handed redshirt senior transfer from UC Santa Barber, is 4-0 with a 1.47 ERA in four cracks as the final-day starter. Junior right-hander Nate Packard, a transfer from Tacoma Community College, also has been in the rotation.
The pitchers will be supported by an offense capable of big innings.
"We need to have the extra-base hits," Loomis says, noting that a team batting average of .267 could improve. "If we can maintain the power, the slugging percentage numbers, it's going to allow us to score the runs we need to in order to win games."
Kelly says the five-run rally in the eighth inning on March 5 to beat Oregon 5-3 is an example of how competitive these Pilots are.
"We have a lot of want and a lot of passion on this team this year," Kelly says. "We had a lot of great things last year, but I think this team has a little bit more drive. We understand what we're capable of."
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