Jordan Ingram reporting for FishDuck.com on Oregon Baseball Media Day at PK Park
Since former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny announced the return of Oregon baseball and the hiring of head coach George Horton in 2007, the Ducks have been rising stars in the Pac-12 and around the nation. Last season, Oregon finished with a 44-20 record after a narrow, season ending loss to Vanderbilt in the 2014 Nashville Regional final game. That same Vanderbilt Commodores team went on to win the 2014 College World Series.
For Duck fans, it was exciting to see an Oregon team playing spirited baseball in a Regional final. But, for Horton, the goal from the very beginning has been for the Ducks to play in the College World Series.
“It’s not words, I think it’s something we can achieve here. The fact we have not done that in our six years is disappointing to me,” Horton told GoDucks.com.
In his seventh season as Oregon’s head coach, Horton maintains high hopes for the baseball program, recruiting and developing a strong bullpen, position players with sound fundamentals, and aggressive hitters. Last year, injuries plagued the team and the Ducks lost star players Cole Irvin, Matt Krook, and Scott Heineman. As freshmen pitchers, both Krook and Irvin earned All-American honors and both suffered injuries requiring Tommy John surgery.
Irvin’s freshman pitching campaign set a school record with 12 wins and finished with a 2.48 ERA. This season, Irvin is still on the mend. He is reported to be throwing again, but is unsure about whether he will make his debut in the season opening series against Hawaii.
“We’ll see, we’ll have to wait for the doctor’s orders on that one,” Irvin said. “I could be in Hawaii or I could not, but we’ll see. I’m dying to get back on that mound against other opponents.”
While Irvin remains day to day, returning catcher and 2015 preseason All-American junior Shaun Chase is expected to have another great season. A catalyst for the Ducks’ offense, last season Chase led the Pac-12 with 14 home runs and held a .283 batting average. Chase told FishDuck.com that he believes this team has a lot of depth at nearly every position.
“There’s a lot of depth this year at every position. There’s so many different options that we can use this year. If someone’s struggling, we can put someone new in. It’s just going to be a battle all year for positions,” Chase said.
Oregon’s depth chart and official roster has yet to be determined, but the success of Oregon’s squad will depend on its best and most experienced players remaining healthy. Junior third baseman Mitchell Tolman is another offensive stalwart for the Ducks.
The preseason All-American boasted a .315 batting average with two home runs, 18 doubles, and five triples last season. The two year starter hopes to contribute another solid performance as a seasoned veteran and proven asset for a Ducks team eager to start the regular season.
“If he’s just Mitchell Tolman, and does what he did as a freshman and sophomore, with his natural progression, I think he’s got a chance to be recognized by the professional people and be one of the best players in the conference,” Horton said of him.
And as with the Oregon football team, Horton likes fast athletes who can make both defensive plays in the outfield and create offensive opportunities as base runners. A speedy Duck offense works well if Horton chooses to play “small ball,” a strategy that relies on bunting, steals, hit-and-run and situational hitting, essentially trading outs for runs. Although Horton said he wants his players to be able to advance the bases without sacrificing outs and spoke to their athleticism.
“All above average runners, very athletic, and instinctive base runners, so I think we’re going to be able to steal some bases instead having to give up outs on sacrifice bunts,” Horton said.
Whichever strategy the Ducks employ this year, with returning veterans, several preseason All-Americans, and young talent, it appears the Oregon baseball team is primed and ready for another successful season. If everyone stays healthy and produces to their individual and group potential, this could be the year the Ducks break through the Regional and even Super Regional “ceiling” to accomplish Horton’s and the program’s dreams of playing in the College World Series.
Top photo by Kevin Cline