The sound coming out of PK Park has to be music to every baseball fans’ ears.
It’s the familiar sounds of a ball smacking in a glove and the ping of an aluminum bat making contact with a batting practice fastball.
Oregon hopes those sounds of February will be replaced with the roar of a crowd in May as the Ducks try to make their first ever appearance in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Going to Omaha has been the goal since Day 1 when Oregon resurrected the baseball program 10 years ago. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet and according to the Pac-12 coaches poll, it’s unlikely to happen in 2019 either.
The Ducks were selected to finish seventh, receiving 49 votes. UCLA was picked to win the conference with defending national champion Oregon State finishing third, behind second place Stanford.
But pre-season predictions mean very little. It’s what goes on in between the line that counts and Oregon coach George Horton believes this Duck team is better than in previous seasons.
“We like them. They’ve really meshed together,” he said. “We believe in our formula, we believe in our blueprint and we believe in what do. We just have to do it better and more frequently than we have.”
Oregon missed out on the NCAA tournament a year ago when it finished 26-29 overall and just 12-18 in Pac-12 action. It was the Ducks’ worst season since they were 14-42 in that inaugural season in 2009. They have finished in eighth place for three consecutive years.
As usual, if the Ducks are going to experience any success in 2019 and change their fortunes, it will begin on the mound. Oregon has always had good starting pitching and this year won’t be any different.
Junior Kenyon Yovan, who was a first-team all-conference selection from a year ago, made the All-America watch list and the watch list for the Golden Spikes Award. He was an All-American closer after his freshman season and was 6-4 with a 2.98 earned run average to go with five saves as a sophomore.
It was a no-brainer to have Yovan start the season on the mound at No. 8 Texas Tech. Ryne Nelson, Cullen Kafka and Cole Stringer will round out the rotation for that first weekend. Whether or not that rotation stays in tact for the conference season remains to be seen, but having a sure Friday night starter in Yovan will be a nice luxury for Horton to have this spring.
Nelson was Oregon’s closer last season as a sophomore where he compiled a 3-1 record with a 3.86 ERA and four saves. He was named to a watch list by the Baseball Writers of America as the nation’s top closer, but it looks like his closing days are behind him for now.
Kafka is a big 6-4, 208-pound right-hander from Walnut Creek, Calif. that struggled his in his freshman season, but is expected to come into his own in 2019. He was a top recruit coming out of De La Salle as he was ranked as one of the top pitchers to come out of California in 2017.
Stringer is a junior lefty from Portland that had a promising start to his college career and was expected to have a big season in 2018. But last year was derailed due to a season-ending injury. He started 16 games as a freshman and he a 3.81 ERA. As a sophomore, he was used mainly in relief, but still had a nice 3.80 ERA. Oregon is hoping this is the year Stringer finally becomes a big factor in the Pac-12.
For the Ducks, offense has always been problematic for one reason for another. Oregon seems to have to scratch out runs whenever it can. Last season was a particular bad season for the bats.
Oregon was last in the conference with a .239 team average, last with 4.3 runs per game and 10th in total runs scored with 236. If the Ducks have any hopes of competing for some kind of post-season, those numbers have to be better.
It all starts with redshirt senior Jacob Goldfarb.
The catcher/centerfielder was a Pac-12 honorable mention last season as he led the Ducks by hitting .308 with six homers and 29 runs batted in. He’ll see plenty of time at multiple positions, as will many Duck players. According to Horton, the flexibility of these players are a strength, not a weakness.
“We have some guys who have utility abilities,” he said. “We’re more athletic, more physical and we pass the eye test better than we have in the last couple of years.”
Oregon’s leading run producer, Spencer Steer, also returns. The junior infielder led the Ducks with 37 RBIs, while hitting .277 with four homers.
The player hoping to make the biggest jump is Jonny DeLuca. The sophomore was a top recruit in 2017 and had a nice 2018 by leading the team with six homers and driving in 32 runs. But he just hit .212 at the plate, something everyone expects to take a dramatic jump in his second season in Eugene.
“DeLuca made the All-Star team last season in the Cape (Cod League) and he’s really grown up,” Horton said. “Not that he was a baby last season, but he looks like a junior instead of a sophomore.”
Oregon had five players go to the Cape Cod League last summer. It’s the premier summer league for college players and along with Yovan, Nelson, Steer and DeLuca, Gabe Matthews also went, but he was hurt and couldn’t play. What he was able to do was to watch and learn from the best players in the country and Horton is hoping that will be dividends for the sophomore from Salem.
The schedule won’t exactly let the Ducks ease into things, however.
Oregon opens up the season with the Red Raiders for a four-game set in Lubbock, Texas. The pre-season pick to win the Big XII advanced to Omaha last season.
The home schedule gets underway Feb. 22 when Saint Mary’s visits PK Park for a four-game set that includes a doubleheader on Sat. Feb. 23.
Oregon’s conference schedule begins with Washington coming to town March 15-17. Arizona State (March 22-24), Stanford (April 18-20), Oregon State (May 10-12) and UCLA (May 23-25) all make their way to PK Park this spring.
Besides hosting OSU for the three conference games, the Ducks will take on the Beavers in non-conference action in Corvallis March 12 and April 9.
~ Don Smalley