The grand heist: Oregon State's route back to Pac-12 dominance starts on the bases
As their in-state rival embraces the long ball, the Beavers are stealing their way back to another conference title.
CORVALLIS — Justin Boyd had to get past the mental block of being called out.
The Oregon State right fielder has always been pretty fast, he said. He’s 6-foot, 201-pounds and was athletic enough coming out of high school in Colorado to be named one of his class’s top-200 players. But he never really flexed his athleticism on the base paths. His 12 stolen bases as a junior were a high in high school, and in his first full season with Oregon State he swiped just one bag.
“I could always run, it was just getting over the fact of coming out of the ground and being afraid to run,” Boyd said. “I used to be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get thrown out.’ And now it’s just overcoming that and saying, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Boyd, who leads the Pac-12 with 22 stolen bases this season, isn’t alone. Oregon State’s 71 steals lead the Pac-12 and have added a dynamic to an offense that’s managed to score a conference-leading 7.6 runs per game despite a relatively powerless lineup.
Here are the teams inside of D1Baseball.com’s top 10 this year and their national ranking in home runs per game:
No. 1 Tennessee: 1st
No. 3 Virginia Tech: 8th
No. 4 Stanford: 36th
No. 5 Texas Tech: 30th*
No. 6 Texas A&M: 71st
No. 7 Arkansas: 27th
No. 8 Oklahoma State: 54th
No. 9 Miami: 45th
No. 10 Louisville: 30th
And No. 2 Oregon State?
The Beavers’ 42 home runs in 51 games rank 192nd in the country and a whopping 78 home runs behind the category-leading Volunteers. And it hasn’t really mattered because Oregon State’s pitching staff ERA is 11th-best in baseball and the lineup is manufacturing runs like a 2010s George Horton Oregon1 offense in track shoes.
Boyd has 22 stolen bases, Jacob Melton is second in the conference with 19 swipes, Wade Meckler has 11 and Travis Bazzana has chipped in 9 on 10 attempts. What’s turned this from petty theft to something more sinister for the rest of the Pac-12 is that all four of those players are hitting .325 or better with plus-.400 on-base percentages.
“We don’t have a more old fashioned approach, it’s just kind of the guys we have on the team,” Melton said. “We’re not going to bash you with triples and doubles and home runs and stuff. We’re sneaky. We get hits and get on base a lot. Moving runners and stuff like that gives us opportunities to drive in runs.”
Melton’s being a little modest, because he does hit home runs, too. The South Medford graduate leads the Beavers with 13 of them and leads the conference in batting average (.372), RBI (66) and slugging percentage (.704). The center fielder had eight stolen bases last season before his year ended early with shoulder surgery.
“The big thing that changed for me this year is just being patient and trying to get a good pitch to run on,” Melton said. “In years prior, if I felt I had a good pitch to run on I’d run no matter what — even if I didn’t get the best jump.
“I’ve just got more comfortable on the bases and a little better at timing pitchers up.”
That work started last fall, Boyd said, when he and Melton made a pact to invest more practice time on the base paths. They specifically worked on their momentum leads, which is dependent on the runner quickly picking up a pitcher’s tendency and slightly breaking with each pitch.
Boyd’s gotten so good at it that Melton, who hits with Boyd on base nearly 50 percent of the time2, usually gives his teammate a pitch or two before he really digs into his at-bat.
“I don’t take too many pitches over the heart of the plate, but if he gets a good jump I’m definitely willing to take a couple pitches to let him get the bag for sure,” Melton said.
It’s a generous move considering the competition between the two. Both know where the other stands in the stat sheet. And while Boyd missed most of this past weekend’s series-loss against Arizona after being hit in the hand by a pitch, he still holds a three-bag lead after taking a pair from Portland during the mid-week.
“I’ve been trying to catch him for a while,” Melton said. “[Portland] gave him a little cushion here, but hopefully this weekend I can get a couple and catch back up with him.”
The No. 2 Beavers host No. 23 UCLA to close out the Pac-12 regular season this weekend in Corvallis with Oregon State holding a one-game lead over Stanford and a two-game lead over the Bruins. The Beavers can guarantee themselves their first Pac-12 regular season title since 2017 with a sweep.
They’d be plenty happy to steal it if they must.
“It’s light hearted and we kind of joke about it, but at the end of the day both of us want to be the one that has more steals,” Melton said.
Boyd figures he needs about seven more to clinch it.
“We got quite a few games left,” he said. “I’m trying to get to 30. That would be a good number to beat him.”
— Tyson Alger
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The Ducks, meanwhile, moved their fences in at PK Park this offseason and have smacked a team-record 66 home runs.
Boyd leads the Pac-12 with a .481 on-base percentage.