by Lee Dorner
March 21, 2014, VANCOUVER (ISN) – The UBC Thunderbirds finally get their conference home opener this weekend at Thunderbird Park, as they put their win streak on the line against the Oregon Tech Hustlin’ Owls in a four-game series.
After two weeks of NAIA West league action, the T-Birds are tied for first with Lewis-Clark State at 6-2, and they are winners of six straight conference games and eight overall. That’s a pretty nice position to be in considering they have yet to play a conference game at home. And it’s even more impressive considering that as of March 19, UBC ranks second in the entire NAIA in strength of schedule (behind only LC State).
When you stack that up against Oregon Tech’s 4-4 conference and 9-17 overall records, which come with a 60th overall strength of schedule ranking, this weekend shapes up, at least on paper, as a pretty good opportunity for the ‘Birds to keep rolling and get established and comfortable at home. Especially since all four of Oregon Tech’s conference wins were last week against Simpson University, who are 1-23 overall this season.
Most of the roster seems to be on some kind of a hot streak right now, but any discussion of the way the ‘Birds have been playing lately has to start with Kevin Biro. The junior third baseman from Deep Bay, B.C. was the Red Lion Player of the Week for the conference after an 11-for-21 series at Concordia with six runs batted in and four runs scored. That put his batting average well up over .400, and after an 18-3 demolition of Thompson Rivers in non-conference action this week, Biro is now leading the conference with a stellar .434 average, and leading the team with 18 RBIs.
The ‘Birds as a group are hitting .306, which is tops in the conference. Tyson Popoff, from Richmond, B.C., has his average up to .349 with 17 RBIs after a strong week. Tyler Enns, a Winnipeg native, is hitting .364 with a team-best .485 on-base percentage.
But the pitching can’t be ignored either, as UBC’s team earned run average of 3.08 is also the best in the conference. Relievers Curtis Taylor, a rookie from Coquitlam, B.C., and Matt Thornton, a senior from Campbell River, B.C., were both excellent at Concordia last week, making three shutout appearances each. They actually pitched a combined 8.0 innings of scoreless ball in that series, and when you can get an entire game’s worth of production at that level from just two relievers in a single series, that takes a lot of pressure and strain off starters.
One of those starters – junior lefty Conor Lillis-White, of Toronto, has an 0.76 ERA, ninth-best in the entire NAIA, and a sub-.200 opponents’ batting average.
For the Hustlin’ Owls, it’s been a tough slog for the early part of the season, but after a 5-17 start overall, they did outscore Simpson 34-5 in their four-game sweep last week. Whether or not that means anything in the context of a 1-23 opponent is debatable, but the Owls need something to build on, and that’s not a bad start.
Their team batting average is .252 and the team ERA is 4.75, which are both middle-of-the-pack numbers in the Cascade Conference. The offence has a strong top-four, consisting of Spencer Reed, Ethan Schlecht, Ryan Hayden and Aaron Bocchi, with averages ranging from .286-.310. They all have double-digit RBI totals, and Hayden and Bocchi have combined for five home runs to provide a little power.
But nobody on the Owls has displayed much of a hitter’s eye this season, as the top on-base percentage is .382 and the team average is a disappointing .317. Given that walks tend to be a bit of a problem area for the UBC pitching staff, it will be interesting to see how that battle plays out this weekend.
On the mound, Austin Taylor is the main man for Oregon Tech. He’s 3-3 in six starts with a 2.78 ERA, with 32 strikeouts to 11 walks in 45.1 innings. He’s the only starter with a sub-.400 ERA, and the numbers don’t indicate any shut-down arms coming out of the bullpen for the Owls, so Taylor will be the big obstacle for UBC’s hot offence to deal with this weekend.