Ducks on Deck: The Real Diamond in Eugene

Nothing like home field advantage.

If you were playing sports roulette with Oregon athletics, would you put all you had on the Oregon Baseball program? Coach George Horton would, and I would too.

This Ducks baseball squad came off their first NCAA Tournament berth in 2010 and is a program that was resurrected in 2009 after being non-existent since 1980 . In the 2010 NCAA Tournament the Ducks defeated UConn in the first regional 5-3, but lost to Florida State 6-4 in the second round. It’s no secret that 2011 was a down year for the Ducks, finishing 8th in the Pac-12 at 33-26 (11-16). The Ducks finished 10th in home runs (32), seventh in triples (12) and third in doubles (120) in the 2011 season. As a result of the disappointing season, Coach Horton has made sure this year’s Ducks team is coming out of the gate with a serious bite.

“Instead of predicting what we’re going to do we’re just gonna kind of live in the moment, take care of the moment, try to get better in the moment, walk away each day hoping we’re a better baseball team,” said Horton on Wednesday, the Ducks media day. It’s extremely humble of the Ducks skipper to say this, but let’s make one thing very clear, this year’s team is VERY GOOD despite the low expectations and last years disappointing season, they will surprise everyone, including themselves.

In the pre-season ESPN sports writer’s rankings, the Ducks are not in the top 25, even though they should be. However, they did receive 24 votes to be included. That alone is good enough for a pre-season statement about how good this team potentially really is.

This Oregon baseball crew is beyond ready to go despite only having four seniors. The talk around Eugene is about how impressive of a job Chip Kelly did with his recruiting class. But as someone who loves baseball and follows this team VERY closely, I tell you with confidence that it is George Horton who is bringing in Oregon’s best recruiting class regardless of sport at the University of Oregon.

Horton is great at the recruiting game. Chad Cordero, Kurt Suzuki, Ricky Romero, Justin Turner and Wes Roemer are just a few of George Horton’s treasures that are currently, or have been major league players. Horton’s 2011-2012 recruiting class is incredibly impressive.

To give you an idea of how good this So. Cal legend is at the recruiting game, Oregon’s 2011-2012 recruiting class is ranked the ninth best in the country. This also marks the second consecutive year the Ducks baseball program has had a top 10 recruiting class (ranked No. 10 in 2010).

Wanna put your chips on Horton now? If still not convinced that Horton is all in for this program, here’s an idea of how hard he has worked this off-season.

Oregon’s freshman class includes three top-200 players from the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft analysis; outfielder Billy Flamion and right-handers Jake Reed and Cole Wiper. All have earned serious accolades while playing for their respective programs.

In addition, Oregon seems to be establishing its own farm of quality home-grown ball players. The Ducks have signed seven players from the Northwest region, including the top two prospects in the state of Oregon as evaluated by Baseball Northwest.

Westview High School (Portland) third baseman Carson Kelly is the top-ranked recruit in the state of Oregon. Kelly highlights the class along with left-hander Cole Irvin (Yorba Linda, Calif), as both high school seniors are currently playing for the USA Baseball 18U national team in the COPABE Junior AAA/18U Pan American Championships.

Along with Kelly, Oregon has signed the No. 2 recruit in the state of Oregon, catcher/right-hander Joshua Graham (Roseburg, Ore./Roseburg HS), as well as his teammate, right-hander Jared Priestley.

The Ducks have also inked three players ranked in Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list for the class of 2012 led by Kelly (28), Irvin (70) and Andrew Pullin (80) of Centralia High School in Washington.

Oregon also welcomes left-hander Brandon Brown (Star, Idaho), the top-ranked recruit out of Idaho evaluated by Baseball Northwest, 2011 All-CIF Southern Section Division I Team outfielder Nick Catalano (Anaheim, Calif.) and left-hander Garrett Cleavinger (Baldwin City, Kan.).

Horton also knows how to go out and get older, veteran JC players as well. Big bat Tyler Baumgartner and right-hander Adrian Sampson from the defending NWAACC champion Bellevue Community College Bulldogs will join the Ducks this year. In addition, the Ducks welcome Howard College (Big Spring, Texas) teammates right-hander Clayton Crum and right-hander Nicholas Sawyer, as well as first baseman Jacob Jelmini from College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif.

To make a long story short, the Ducks were not successful last season because they lacked thunder in the hitting department and failed to manufacture runs in the clutch in addition to running out of gas in the late innings of games. However, with the signing of these recruits Horton is seemingly eliminating the offensive problems the Ducks suffered in 2010 and last season which is what any great coach would do.

The recruits that the Ducks have inked can come in and play immediately if Horton needed it. This is a luxury that is beneficial for college baseball. It may take a football player 2-3 years before they are deemed ready to play, in addition to having to compete with a much larger roster for playing time.

“That was one of our struggles last year (2011) and I think we’re going to be a better hitting team this year for sure” said J.J. Altobelli about the team’s hitting struggles.

As I said, Horton is somewhat of a legend in baseball, period. One of the biggest things legends know how to do is recognize what is not working, and how to fix it. Horton acknowledged what did not work for the Ducks last year and as a result, has taken the time to make monumental steps to correct the performance that was lost in the previous two seasons. He started by improving the games’ teachers.

To help with Oregon’s hitting afflictions; Oregon brought back assistant coach Jay Uhlman and added coach Mark Wasikowski. Uhlman returns to a full-time position after leaving his part-time gig with the Ducks last year for a full-time position at Kansas. Wasikowski joins the staff as the primary hitting coach. He previously spent 10 years as an assistant at Arizona under Andy Lopez.

Shortstop J.J. Altobelli (.236 with 20 RBI) said Wasikowski “has the team’s bats headed in the right direction by reshaping their mental and physical approaches to hitting.”

Aaron Jones (.270 with 36 RBI) and Ryon Healy (.320, 20 RBI) are the two biggest hitters returning to Oregon this season, but the Ducks certainly needs more hitting consistency from others to contend for a playoff berth. Otherwise, it could be another offensively disappointing year for the Ducks.

Team pitching once again should be the gem for this program. However, that won’t come easy with Christian Jones set to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Last year he finished 7-2 with a 3.24 ERA. With Jones out of commission, the ace of the Ducks pitching staff is senior Alex Keudell, who went 7-3 with a 2.89 ERA last season. The right-hander is currently recovering from an arm injury but should be ready to go opening day.

To put this all into perspective, and what this means for the first few games of the season is that no one’s job is guaranteed, and every player on the roster will have to fight to make the lineup card every day. “We have some returning guys who are maybe hanging on to their positions by their fingernails and we have some young guys who are saying, ‘hey, I’m good enough to play. That’s the fun part of the start of the season,” said Horton.

Still don’t believe Oregon deserves all your chips? Then it’s time to bring in the closer.

In looking at this Ducks team from its media day on Wednesday one thing is clear; success is in the air. If asking what the keys are for this Oregon team to get back to the playoffs, that too is simple. It is going to take a good team chemistry and work ethic. There is no doubt Oregon will work out its early injury problems in time for their opener against Hawaii on Feb 17, but the team has to get all offensive players on the same page, and each player needs to put runs on the board to help support the solid, hardworking pitching staff if they plan on getting back to the postseason.

It won’t be a difficult road for this club because they are talented and most importantly they have a legendary Hall-of-Famer leading them into battle, Coach George Horton. Horton became a great leader by playing for and learning from another notable baseball icon; Augie Garrido. Those unfamiliar with college baseball and Horton’s renowned status, all that’s needed to know is that this Ducks program is in great hands.

Contrarian opinion may suggest that baseball in Oregon is dead and it will never return. However, there is a southern California legend living and working in Eugene that would disagree. He got a phone call back in 2008-2009 that helped to change this prophecy. He was told that the University of Oregon was attempting to resurrect a long deceased baseball program and that the name they were certain could bring it to life, was his. That name that could change the death of a past time was George Horton. The 2004 College World Series Champion coach.

In only four short years Horton has begun to accomplish exactly what he did at Fullerton from 1996-2007, building a team from being on life support, to a national champion. This year’s recruiting class shows us that all legends struggle (Horton’s first three years at Oregon) but all they need is time. Time to show us that “not looking like much,” can manifest into a championship atmosphere.

It is time we take a break from football and watch the birth of a new dynasty at Oregon. It is time to play roulette with this 2012 Ducks baseball team because the best baseball players in and out of Oregon know something we don’t and are going all in and betting their baseball futures on a young, new, still yet unproven program.

It’s time to place our bets, pull up a chair, and watch Oregon spin the wheel on a new, breakout season that will hopefully end in victory under the bright lights of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

THE Field of Dreams

Here is a link for the 2012 Ducks Baseball roster:


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