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Long-struggling Pilots in contention for NCAA postseason berth

May 4, 2010

By Norm Maves Jr., Special to The Oregonian

They have the pitching and they have the depth. They have line-drive stingers all up and down their batting order and they're faster than a spring sneeze on the bases.

And when they take the field at PK Park in Eugene at 7 p.m. Tuesday, they'll do it with something of a chip on their shoulders.

No, the subject here is not the celebrated Oregon Ducks.

Meet the 2010 Portland Pilots.

The 30-9 Portland Pilots. They fly considerably under the radar of the two big Division I baseball stories in Oregon this season -- the dramatic rise of the expansion Ducks (30-14, 10-8 Pac-10) and the precipitous current freefall at Oregon State (21-17, 4-11) -- but their accomplishments are just as noteworthy.

College baseball fans are painfully aware of what's been going on at Waud Bluff over the past 20 years: no NCAA berth or 30-win season since Desert Storm, and not even a winning season since 1992.

The interregnum has been harsh on the Pilots (an average of 15 games under .500 per year) and was expected to be as such this year. They were voted eighth -- again -- in this year's West Coast Conference preseason poll.

All that might as well be on the other side of the world now. The Pilots are a serious threat to go to the NCAA postseason this year, and they can make a great case for it: They're 20-3 since March 19; they're 11-1 in the West Coast Conference with undefeated San Diego coming to Pilot Stadium for a critical three-game series beginning Friday.

What happened? Lots of things.

"The major difference," says Chris Sperry, the eternal optimist who played on two winning Portland teams in the 1980s and who has endured the past 10 years as head coach, "is that now we're demonstrating the ability to compete every day. That's the result of having depth and having depth in the right positions -- and being good in the right positions.

"Ten years ago you might have had one good pitcher and have a chance to win on a particular day, but the next two days might be a real struggle. Now we're enjoying the benefits of having three good starters on the mound, a legitimate closer and strength up the middle."

That's about it in a nutshell, but C.J. Cullen, the Pilots' first baseman and leading (.386) hitter this year, points out that one thing hasn't changed at all.

"For the most part it's the same guys who performed last year," he said."It feels like it's just a different environment. We just feel like we're supposed to win."

Actually, the list of ingredients is missing a key element from last year's 25-26 team: The heart of the batting order. The Pilots bopped 50 home runs last year, and 24 of them were by seniors.

This year's team hits .300 as a unit -- 10 points higher -- and starts six .300 hitters: Cullen, designated hitter Beau Fraser (.383), catcher Rocky Gale (.344), second baseman Riley Henricks (.327) and outfielders Garrett Queen (.323) and Craig Smith (.309).

The story of the year is Cullen himself: He was a great defensive shortstop for three years who couldn't threaten the windows on a greenhouse at bat. He sat all last year and got just 12 at-bats. But some overtime work with assistant coach Tucker Brack and a relaxed attitude have changed everything.

These Pilots don't score at a dramatically higher rate than last year's team, but they don't have to. Sperry and pitching coach Larry Casian have quietly developed a pitching staff that carries a slick 3.24 earned run average. Oregon's, by comparison, is 3.44.

"Every single game," Cullen said, "we know we're either going to be ahead or we're going to be right there with a chance to win the game. No matter what."

The Pilots entered the season with two pretty good starters -- sophomore Kyle Krausand junior Owen Jones -- and a good closer in Zach Varce. Then Casian, the former major leaguer, came back from a recruiting trip with a revelation.

"He came to my office last spring," Sperry says, after he saw a kid and said 'Hey, this guy can really help us.' He said his fastball was 84-85 mph and that didn't sound like much. But Larry said that this guy had a slider that made his fastball look like 100 mph."

The subject was Chris Dennis, a right-hander from Bothell, Wash., who played two years at Edmonds Community College. The Pilots signed him up, watched him humiliate their hitters during fall workouts and a couple of weeks into the season made him their closer.

It changed everything for the Portland outlook. In one four-game week recently, Dennis tied the Pilot season record for saves, broke it, then tied the career record -- then broke that. He has 12, and a 1.09 ERA.

His emergence allowed Varce to do what he does best -- start on Fridays; he's 5-1. That allowed Kraus to move to Saturday, and in that slot he is 9-0. Owen Jones, 4-1 with the best ERA among the starters, anchors on Sundays.

"It's been huge," said Varce, who late last year would close twice then start on Sundays. "I know I can come out of the game in the eighth inning and be sure that it's over. Chris's ERA over the past few weeks has just been non-existent.

"He's as automatic as it comes."

Varce modestly ducked questions about his own effectiveness against opponents' best pitchers, but he has struck out 84 batters in 73 innings and walked only 16.

And he says the obvious: This season is fun.

"Yes, we have a bit of a chip on our shoulders," he agreed. "We've taken a lot over the years. It feels good to get on the field with some of these teams and beat them."