UO freshmen look like diamonds in the rough
After a disappointing 2018 season, the third in a row without a postseason for Oregon baseball, change was needed.
So coach George Horton and his staff packed their bags.
Horton headed to the Cape Cod League, where he visited Ducks spending their summer in that college wood-bat league. His assistant coaches did the same.
"We made a decision to communicate more openly with our players," Horton says. "Not, 'Hey this is the way we do it.' But to listen to them."
Giving players more input has improved the culture, Horton says.
"I would say that we have a pretty good atmosphere and chemistry and communication lines between the coaches and the players," he says. "Even the young guys have a voice in things."
The Ducks open Pac-12 play with a home series against Washington, with games set for 6 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday, and noon Sunday at PK Park.
Several freshmen have made themselves heard at the plate in a 10-5 start for Oregon that included Tuesday's 7-6 loss at Oregon State.
Designated hitter Aaron Zavala out of South Salem High had four three-hit games in his first six as a Duck and went into the week hitting .396. Outfielder Tanner Smith, from Newport Beach, California, has hit .300, also with nine RBIs.
In the infield, where the Ducks had two openings, newcomer Sam Novitzke, from Pleasanton, California, has started primarily at third base and shown promise as a leadoff hitter (.296 and tied for first on the club in walks with 11 through last week).
At second base, Max Foxcroft out of Newport Coast, California, has been the primary starter early in the season while Kyle Froemke, from Round Rock, Texas, has seen action at third and second.
"It's been amazing," Horton says of the fast starts from freshmen. "When you recruit those guys, you think they're really good and sometimes it takes them a while to relax and feel confident. For whatever reason, this group has come in and said, 'Hey, I don't need to wait my turn. I'm good enough to play right now.' They were given an opportunity to play, and they've been playing awfully well. We needed that in the infield."
If the Ducks find their way back into postseason, it also will be thanks to a nucleus of veterans, led by the lone senior on the roster.
A fifth-year senior from Scottsdale, Arizona, Jakob Goldfarb was Oregon's top hitter last season, batting .308 with six home runs. Primarily an outfielder, Goldfarb is splitting time between right field and catcher this season and was batting .279 with eight RBIs in the first 14 games.
Juniors Spencer Steer and Gabe Matthews and sophomore Jonny DeLuca each is hoping a big college season improves his draft stock.
Steer, from Long Beach, California, has shifted from third base to shortstop. He is the Ducks' active leader in RBIs, triples and getting hit by a pitch. He has moved into the top 10 in career RBIs, and was batting .360, with eight RBIs, through last week.
Matthews, out of South Salem High, has started more than 100 games in a row, most of them at first base, and is a career .280 hitter at .457 this season, with 11 RBIs and 11 walks going into the OSU game.
The switch-hitting DeLuca, from Agoura Hills, California, set a program record for a freshman with six home runs last season, when he started 54 of the 55 games in center field.
Matthews and Zavala bat from the left side.
"We've got good athletes and some power," Horton notes. "We've had a lot of different contributions. It's been a good balance of our upperclassmen, our guys that hit in the middle of the order and have logged a lot of at-bats and innings, and now the freshman group has taken the lead from the older guys and contributed a lot offensively."
The Ducks return six position starters and nine pitchers from a club that finished 26-29 in 2018 and tied for eighth in the Pac-12.
A group of experienced pitchers, plus one who is highly regarded on draft lists, has provided Horton with good options on the mound.
Junior right-hander Kenyon Yovan from Westview High was the Friday starter 10 times last season, going 6-3 with a 2.77 ERA. A two-time first-team all-conference selection, Yovan was on multiple preseason All-American lists. Because of circulation issues in his hand, Yovan has pitched only two innings this season, but Horton is hopeful he can return soon.
Junior Ryne Nelson, projected as a first-round draft pick this year, will focus only on pitching after starting at shortstop and serving as the closer last spring. The 6-4 right-hander from Henderson, Nevada got off to a rough start (5.75 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 14 walks in four starts/20 1/3 innings). Horton said last week that Nelson is not completely healthy.
Cole Stringer, a lefty out of Central Catholic, returns to the rotation mix after redshirting last season.
Lefty Kolby Somers out of Century High in Hillsboro made 11 starts as a freshman last season.
Sophomore right-hander Cullen Kafka from Walnut Creek, California, has joined the rotation after going 3-2 in 16 appearances last season.
Canby High graduate Nico Tellache has taken on the closer role. Until a rough outing on March 5 in a 5-3 loss at Portland, Tellache, the lone lefty in the bullpen, had allowed only one run in his first five appearances.
Brett Walker, a junior from Fresno, California, has been a solid set-up man.
The Ducks were picked to finish seventh by Pac-12 coaches. Last season, four Pac-12 teams made the NCAA field of 64, so the Ducks will need to rise above expectations to end their three-season playoff drought.
That's why losses like the one at Portland, where Oregon took a three-run lead into the eighth inning, can sting.
Still, Horton said he is happy with the early trends.
"I like the mentality of this club," he says.