A year ago, Oregon headed into the season with high expectations and a No. 14 ranking. The Ducks struggled to generate consistent offense all season and scuffled to a disappointing eighth-place finish (11-16) in the Pacific-10 Conference.
After losing a trio of first-five-rounds picks on the mound (first-rounder Tyler Anderson, second-rounder Madison Boer, fifth-rounder Scott McGough), plus their starting catcher (Jack Marder) and entire middle infield (Danny Pulfer and K.C. Serna), the Ducks were dealt blows this fall and spring, losing freshmen Cole Wiper and Sam Johnson plus key junior lefthander Christian Jones to Tommy John surgery.
So naturally, expectations were much lower for Oregon this year.
That is why the Ducks have opened eyes by starting the season 7-1, including a sweep at preseason No. 10 Vanderbilt that vaulted Oregon into the rankings at No. 18. Oregon's current seven-game road winning streak is its longest road winning streak since at least 1963 (that is as far back as Oregon's records go). Granted, the school did not have baseball for about three decades until reviving the program for the 2009 season, but the point is this hot start is a big deal for the Ducks.
Especially considering the rigors of the road trip. Oregon opened its season with four games at Hawaii (winning the last three), wrapping up the series on Monday. On Wednesday morning, they flew to Nashville, where they played Belmont on Thursday, then a weekend series at Vandy.
Their bus pulled back into the parking lot at Eugene's P.K. Park at 2:30 a.m. Monday after a whirlwind 10 days.
"It's crazy—absolutely crazy," said Oregon assistant coach Jay Uhlman, who handled media duties this week for head coach George Horton, who was sending his youngest daughter off on a church mission. "Obviously it was a challenge on many different fronts. Our kids were resilient, and showed some toughness."
Playing eight games in 10 days was a major test of Oregon's depleted pitching depth, and the Ducks handled it with aplomb. Their weekend starters—senior righty Alex Keudell (1-1, 1.64), freshman righty Jake Reed (1-0, 2.25) and sophomore righty Brando Tessar (2-0, 3.86)—shouldered much of the load. Uhlman referred to Keudell as "the godfather of the pitching staff," the savvy veteran who has helped teach some of the younger arms how to win.
One of those younger arms, Reed, has some of the most electric stuff on the staff, working at 90-94 "with nasty run and sink," according to Uhlman, and a good breaking ball and changeup. The other really big arm on Oregon's staff belongs to sophomore righty Jimmie Sherfy, who has been simply overpowering through three relief outings, going 1-0, 0.87 with 19 strikeouts and nine walks in 10 innings. Not overly physical at 6 feet, 170 pounds, Sherfy is a live-armed bullpen bulldog in the McGough mold. Uhlman calls Sherfy "a little three-quarters funky dude" with a 90-94 mph fastball and a fantastic swing-and-miss curveball.
"He's got nasty stuff, and he's really worked on improving his poise on the mound," Uhlman said. "We've handed him the ball in a couple of crucial situations, and he's responded to that challenge. Like most pitchers, most want to start, but given our thin situation, we needed that plus arm at the back of the game. He got a little bit tired in the Sunday game (at Vandy), but he grinded it out and got a big punchout to end the game. To see him really step up in those situations when we asked him to finish it for us, he got it done big-time."
The Ducks also have seen a number of their hitters emerge, fueling their early offensive turnaround. Oregon hit just .258 as a team last year (259th in the nation), but so far this year the team is hitting .296. Last year, the Ducks hit 19 homers all season (0.32 per game, 238th in the nation), but they already have six in eight games this year (0.75 per game). In Ulman and fellow assistant Mark Wasikowski, the Ducks have two new assistant coaches with an offensive focus while Horton took over handling the pitchers.
"I think you have to try to run away from that analysis (that Oregon is a pitching-first team that struggles to score runs)," Uhlman said. "It was what it was, but coach Waz and myself on the offensive side have tried to take a bit more competitive approach to what we've been doing. It hasn't been so much about the mechanics, but it's been the mentality side. We've really challenged them with competing, and challenging them to expect more out of themselves, have a higher standard. They've absolutely run away with it and risen to the challenge, shown a ton of toughness and grit."
Freshman third baseman Scott Heineman has brought plenty of grit and hitting ability. He leads the team with a .478 average and has played a strong third base, where he has replaced J.J. Altobelli, who has made a seamless adjustment to shortstop.
Like Kuedell on the pitching side, Altobelli has emerged as a true leader for the position players. The son of Orange Coast JC coach John Altobelli, J.J. is an instinctive player who helps direct the rest of the infield, and Uhlman said he's like having another coach on the field. He also gives Oregon "quality at-bat after quality at-bat," Uhlman said.
Two talented sophomores—right fielder/catcher Aaron Jones (.343, 7 RBI) and first baseman Ryon Healy (.313, 1 HR, 9 RBI)—have taken significant steps forward, helping to anchor the middle of the lineup. Jones is a standout athlete with speed and arm strength that plays in the outfield or behind the plate, where he can help keep starter Brett Hambright (who has significantly improved his own athleticism) fresh. But Jones' biggest value lies in his bat.
"He's done a spectacular job. He's gotten big hits for us, hitting in the three-hole in our lineup," Uhlman said. "He's a tough kid. He's a doubles guy, and he's going to hit .300 and rarely strike out. He gets to two strikes, you'll see a 12-, 15-pitch at-bat. He's not going to chase and flail, and he has great hand-eye coordination. He's special with the bat—no doubt."
Healy arrived at Oregon with big expectations after ranking as the top prospect in the California Collegiate League after his senior year in high school. Healy has big power potential, and he might be on the verge of unlocking it. Uhlman said Healy has a tendency to be too hard on himself, but he developed a lot of confidence in the Cape Cod League last summer, and he is doing a better job managing the natural lows of baseball this spring.
Healy and freshman two-way talent Shaun Chase (a big-swinging slugger the Ducks have nicknamed "The Whammer") give Oregon some thump, but don't expect the team to suddenly transform into a power-hitting outfit.
"We're always going to try to grind," Uhlman said. "The inside game will still be a staple for coach Horton's offenses—he's been doing it for a million years, and it's always at our disposal. But we've encouraged our guys to be more aggressive offensively, to get off the right kind of swing in a leveraged count.
"We're happy with the direction that that's headed, but it's a work in progress. We've still got miles to go. We're committed to raising the standards of offense here."
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