Ducks on Deck: What History Tells Us
“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” is one of the most important phrases in American history. It doesn’t seem like much, and you may be wondering–what does it have to do with Ducks athletics? History buffs…you know where I’m going with this.
These were the first words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell on his new patented invention called the telephone in 1876. Coincidentally, 1876 was an important year for Oregon athletics as well. The young university consisting of only two buildings and cow pastures was to begin its inaugural season of a relatively new sport called baseball that was all the rage around the nation’s 38 states (Colorado had just been added to the Union).
In those early years, the Webfoots went on to win the PCC-North Division championship nine times between 1928 and 1946. They were overall PCC champions in 1954 after the conference had unified north and south divisions in the late 1940s, but sadly the PCC dissolved in 1958, forcing the University of Oregon to become an independent until joining the Athletic Association of Western Universities in 1964.
However, even with a newly designed and fancy named conference, the one thing that didn’t change for the Ducks was a winning formula. In 1964, Oregon’s first year in the re-organized conference, Oregon was once again North Division champions racking up an impressive 29-9-1 record. The team made one College World Series appearance, in 1954, being eliminated from the tournament following losses to Arizona and Massachusetts, finishing in 7th place. The program had not only had tremendous on-field success, but developed top talent that would find their way to major league baseball rosters, including MLB Hall of Famer Joe Gordon.
Oregon baseball had remained consistently competitive, accumulating 20+ win seasons 17 times. However, in 1982, in one of the worst decisions in Ducks athletics history, the team was downgraded to a club sport due to budget cuts.
Just as a thought; could you imagine what would happen if, after the loss in the NCAA Tournament this year, the trustees and boosters at a school like Duke decided to make basketball a club sport? Oh the chaos that would ensue.
Thankfully, in 2007 the university announced that Oregon would again field an NCAA Division I baseball team beginning with the 2008-2009 season.
Perhaps there was a touch of schadenfreude in the air, as Oregon State had just won the College World Series. There was a sense that reviving the program would not only return a sport with great tradition but also increase recruiting avenues for two-sport athletes wanting to also play baseball; and to put little brother of Corvallis back in their rightful place below the UO.
Coming into the 2012 campaign it seemed like the expectations and predictions for this year’s Ducks team were not where they should have been. The compliment of the pre-season was “a work in progress.” Not to boast too much, but in retrospect I believe I was the only one covering Ducks baseball that said this team will go into the final rounds in Omaha.
Currently the Ducks are ranked 8th in the country following a jump eight spots this past week in the polls, the highest ever ranking for the program since it was brought back to life in 2007. Remember, in the season preview, Oregon was unranked and considered MAYBE, the 28th best team in the country. All this done despite a rash of injuries all season preventing George Horton from unveiling his full arsenal for most of the season.
Currently the following players are out due to injury:
- #2 rotation starting pitcher Christian Jones
- Catcher/CF Aaron Jones (typically the #3 hitter in Horton’s lineup)
- Pitcher Brando Tessar
- Pitcher Sam Johnson
- JC transfer infielder Craig Meredith
Despite missing these key players, Horton’s squad has managed to rack up a 24-10 record thus far on the season. What has molded this team from “a work in progress” to a championship contender has been their ability to find a way to beat teams with a higher ranking and better talent behind solid pitching and timely hitting, particularly in these past couple of weeks against the top teams the Pac-12 conference has to offer.
Back in mid-March, it looked like the Ducks’ gritty success through sheer determination was beginning to dwindle. From March 11 to the 31st, the Ducks went 5-7 and the team needed a change. With the hopes of post-season play beginning to fade, the team was granted a bit of UO athletics déjà vu.
Back on January 12, the Ducks basketball team was just floating along at a similar point in their season’s schedule. That night they took on Arizona State in Tempe. The Ducks took a two point lead into halftime. When the second half started, the Ducks fell apart and ASU took a sizable lead. Dana Altman’s furious timeout pep talk and Devoe Joseph’s team-leading 15 points led the Ducks to a come-from-behind victory over the Sun Devils that night. It is clear that the Arizona State game was the Ducks “light bulb and turn around” moment that began the magical run to the NIT tournament.
Who knew history would repeat itself for the baseball team almost four months later in nearly identical circumstance. Keeping with the theme, if history tells us anything, Ducks baseball has struggled against the Sun Devils in the past, so this year should have been a difficult one just like the previous three, right? Last year, the Ducks were swept by ASU in their three-game series, losing two out three the year before that, and were again swept by the Sun Devils in 2009. So to put the numbers in perspective, in the Ducks first three seasons they went 1-8 versus Arizona State, a perennial national power in collegiate baseball.
However, it looks like Dana Altman and the Ducks basketball program shared some of their magic with George Horton’s crew in 2012. Circumstances were different at the end of March then they are now in April. Due to the Ducks poor month of March, they came into the ASU series to begin April ranked No. 23 and sliding fast, while ASU was #14 and expected to compete for the conference title. But these Ducks were hungry, ready to salvage their season.
Based on the rankings and the Ducks play in the last two weeks of March, It was supposed to be just another Arizona State sweep over the Ducks, right?
The Ducks and Sun Devils began with a day-night double-header on the 31st. The first game set the tone for how this series would go, with the Ducks taking game one, 1-0. Starting pitcher and staff ace Alex Keudell, pitched the first complete-game shutout of his career allowing only four hits and two walks. In the sixth inning Aaron Jones hit his third home run of the season and the fifth of his career, which was all the run support Keudell would need to finish off the Devils in game one.
When sophomore Kyle Garlick woke up that morning, he had no idea what role coach Horton would have him in that day. He is the type of versatile player that can play pretty much anywhere, so it’s not uncommon for Garlick to dress not knowing where he’s expected to start. Coach Horton didn’t put Garlick in a major role that day. Instead, he penciled Garlick in as the designated hitter for game two. That was fine with Garlick, he would do whatever he could to try to help Oregon finally get a series win over Arizona State.
Kyle Garlick didn’t help the Ducks that day; he put the team on his back and carried them to the series win.
Freed of fielding duties, Garlick ripped two home runs in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader. With his double-dinger day, Garlick became the first Duck since the program was reinstated to hit two round-trippers in a single game, bringing his season total to a team-leading four homers.
There are few players that wake up on the morning of a game and not know what role the coach will have them fill. Even less find out their role just before a game and possess the skill to go out and set a team record, but that’s who Kyle “Mr. Dependable” Garlick is.
Freshman Jake Reed pitched seven & 1/3 shutout innings, scattering five hits and issuing just one walk while striking out four, securing the win for the Ducks. With the series victory in hand, Oregon wanted to make a statement in the final game of the series the following day.
How appropriate was it for the Ducks to have this opportunity to show the conference and the ranking system that they are so much more than just a “project” on of all days, April Fool’s Day.
On Sunday, the Ducks showed that the only fools were those who doubted the legitimacy of this team, finally achieving a 3-game sweep over the vaunted Sun Devils by winning the Sunday game 4-3. In typical Ducks-Sun Devils dramatic fashion, closer Jimmie Sherfy struck out Nathaniel Causey with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth to preserve the Ducks’ 4-3 victory.
The Ducks had little time to celebrate. The Ducks faced the fifth-ranked UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles four days later. Coming into the series the Ducks trailed the all-time matchup 4-6 since the program’s 2007 revival. If someone were to tell me that the Ducks would take the series 2-1, I’d say they were crazy.
In the game one win, Aaron Jones followed the Garlick performance vs. ASU by hitting two homeruns, while Alex Keudell tossed seven shutout innings in the 6-2 win. Game two was a repeat performance for the Ducks. Brett Thomas led Oregon with a 3-for-4 performance which included a RBI and run scored. Freshman Jake Reed was once against spot-on for the Ducks. Reed earned his second straight victory on the mound, limiting UCLA to three runs on five hits and two walks, while striking out two in six innings of work.
These two series against Arizona State and UCLA are incredibly important for the Ducks, paving their road ahead leading straight to Omaha. With the wins over the two higher-ranked prestigious opponents, Oregon won its fifth-consecutive conference game for the first time since May 4-9, 1976. Since resurrecting the baseball program, Oregon has won both series against UCLA at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
Individually, during this stretch, Aaron Jones has extended his hitting streak to eight straight games. The Ducks have hit eight home runs in six of their last seven games.
The Ducks continued the wins this past week with a two game series sweep of San Francisco, outscoring the Dons 8-3 in two games. In the game two victory, the Ducks pitching staff allowed a season-low two hits. The Ducks continued their difficult Pac-12 schedule against the number six-ranked Stanford Cardinal April 13-15, the Ducks won the series two games to one.
In the first round of the Stanford series, Alex Keudell won his fourth game in a row on the mound and had a season-best seven strikeouts during the 4-2 win. J.J. Altobelli hit the Ducks first triple of the season.
Game two was yet another brilliant Oregon pitching performance as Jake Reed threw seven shutout innings for the 5-0 victory. Aaron Payne and Ryon Healy both had a big game offensively. Healy finished his day with a 3-for-4 performance, driving in three runs and scoring two more, while Payne finished his day 3-for-5 with two runs scored.
Oregon is now 10-2 against ranked opponents in 2012, and have won back-to-back-to-back series against top-25 opponents (ASU-14, UCLA-5, Stanford-6), totaling the Ducks eight series wins on the season, their fourth against a ranked opponent (three on the road) which has helped them surge upward from the ranking of 24th as high as 8th in the most recent polls.
As a result of the April surge, Ducks sophomore outfielder Brett Thomas has been named Pac-12 Player of the Week and senior right-handed pitcher Alex Keudell was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week for April 2-8. This is Alex Keudell’s first career Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week selection and Oregon’s fourth all-time selection. Sophomore Jimmie Sherfy claimed the first Pitcher of the Week award of the 2012 season on Feb. 21. Surely after his month of April, Jake Reed is not far behind in winning POW honors.
If history has taught us anything, it is that baseball belongs at Oregon. It was successful in its 1876 inception, early years, and continued success through the 1920’s up through 1982.
In addition to its teaching abilities, history also has the gift of repeating itself. The Ducks basketball program was enroute to a season-killing downward spiral until the infamous Dana Altman timeout in Tempe. With his magic words and Devoe Joseph’s 15 points, not only did the Ducks turn the game around, they turned the season around.
Ducks baseball was 5-7 from mid-March to the end of the month, and like basketball were also on their way towards a dangerous downward spiral. Just like how Ducks basketball needed that pep talk from Dana Altman, Ducks baseball needed a game-winning home run from Aaron Jones and an almost perfect game from Alex Keudell to turn the season around. With the win against Arizona State, basketball went on to the NIT semi-finals. Since the loss to Texas State on March 28, baseball is 9-2, in second place in the conference, and are back on track for an Omaha run.
It appears that it’s not the winning that motivates this team; it’s the sports community that has such low expectations of these talented Ducks that has pulled them from the brink of death, feeding off the doubter as motivation to dominate the month of April.
With this magical month of April, history has reminded us of two very important lessons. First, Alexander Graham Bell should be in the Ducks Hall-of-Fame, because if he had never invented the telephone Oregon athletics would have never had the means to call George Horton, convincing the legendary coach to leave the comforts of Cal State Fullerton to start a new program at Oregon. Horton is a proven winner, now doing it once more with the Ducks, where he notched his 600th win as a Division I head coach this past week (game two against Stanford). Without Horton’s masterful work reviving baseball at the University of Oregon, this magical April run may have never happened.
The second thing that baseball history teaches us, is that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. With the turn around, the Ducks are building a strong case to defy expectations and make it to Omaha this year, maybe even first place may be in the cards for this amazing group of Oregon athletes.
The Oregon Ducks next face Portland at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, OR, before returning to PK Park to host a 3-game series with Washington State starting Friday, April 20th.