The road has been kind to Oregon in Pac-12 play.
The Ducks won five of six conference games away from home during the first half of the conference schedule while going 2-7 at PK Park. Oregon will pack its bags for two weeks in a row beginning with a three-game series at California that starts on Friday.
“Any time you can steal a game on the road on this conference, that is big,” UO freshman third baseman Sam Novitske said. “We’ve got to keep up that mindset and get some wins at Cal.”
Oregon (22-16) was swept by second-ranked Stanford at home last weekend to fall into seventh place in the Pac-12 at 7-8. California (21-14) is one game ahead of the Ducks in fifth place at 8-7.
Last week, the Ducks were projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA field by Baseball America, but three home losses to the Cardinal dropped them out of that bracket this week. Baseball America has Cal as one of the last four teams in the tournament.
“This is a critical series,” Oregon coach George Horton said. “It would have been even if we had won against Stanford, but now we want to get back into the discussion of contenders and standings and those kinds of things.”
California junior first baseman Andrew Vaughn is projected as a Top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball draft. The 6-foot, 214-pounder ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in both batting average (.379) and home runs (11) while also ranking among the leaders in slugging percentage (.710), on-base percentage (.539) and RBIs (35).
“That is certainly the guy you know when he’s coming up and you hope he doesn’t come up with a bunch of guys on base,” Horton said. “If he’s not the best hitter in the country, he’s on the short list.”
California junior pitcher Jared Horn, who is 3-1 with a 1.60 ERA, is also expected to go early in the MLB draft. The 6-4 right-hander allowed three hits and one unearned run while striking out 10 in 8 1/3 innings when the Bears defeated top-ranked UCLA 4-1 last week. The Bears also won at No. 4 Oregon State and No. 14 LSU earlier in the season.
Oregon will be without starting pitcher Robert Ahlstrom for the second week in a row due to illness. Cullen Kafka (4-3, 4.74 ERA) is expected to replace Ahlstrom in the opener for the second week in a row followed by Cole Stringer (1-1, 5.90) on Saturday.
Horton has not announced a Sunday starter but Tyler Frazier, Brett Walker and Kolby Somers are among the candidates. Ryne Nelson (2-1, 3.94) began the season in Oregon’s starting rotation, but has been moved to the bullpen to give the coaching staff options for using him in multiple games during a weekend.
“There is more focus for every game because there is a chance I can throw in all three games,” Nelson said. “I enjoy being able to contribute in every game.”
Nelson has not allowed a run in 12 2/3 innings during his last seven appearances while striking out 25 batters.
“I think my off-speed stuff has gotten better over the course of the year and my fastball command is getting there,” he said. “I feel the best that I ever have on the mound.”
Oregon will stay in the Bay Area to face San Jose State on Monday before returning to the road to play at Arizona next weekend.
“It has been unfortunate with some injuries to our pitching staff and position players, but this is more adversity for us to overcome,” Novitske said. “As long as we stay positive and move forward, I think we can rattle off some wins and hopefully make the playoffs.”