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Paul Danzer on Baseball: Wasikowski preaches faster tempo, hunts elite talent, eyes more wins

EUGENE — Mark Wasikowski isn't ready to predict how quickly Oregon baseball can become a force.

But the Ducks' new skipper promises his team won't be boring.

"Let's face it, because of the amount of time between each pitch and the natural structure of baseball, it can be a really boring sport at times. We don't want to add to that," Wasikowski said. "We would like to try to speed things up the best we can to keep people engaged to where they can play their best."

The Wasikowski era will begin on Friday, when Oregon takes on Minnesota at Tempe, Arizona. The Ducks take on San Diego Saturday, Pepperdine Sunday and play at Grand Canyon Tuesday before playing host to Nevada Feb. 21-23 at PK Park.

The preparation began when Wasikowski was named coach on June 13. He replaced George Horton, who guided the program from its rebirth in 2009 through last season.

One of Wasikowski's charges is to develop a program that excites Ducks fans in Eugene and beyond. With that in mind, a focus through fall and winter has been learning to play at a high tempo.

"One of the things we really emphasized is calling the pitch. Just a small example, getting the pitch from catcher to pitcher in quickly so there is no time with pitchers standing around the mound waiting for the batter to get into the box and then the sign to be given," Wasikowski said. "We try to speed that up to where we're setting the tempo instead of waiting on people."

Practice details reinforce the philosophy of playing fast: getting on and off the field quickly between innings, for example, by having each player's glove in a consistent place in the dugout so they can immediately take the field.

Wasikowski understands it takes time to change habits. He knows Oregon pitchers won't immediately shake lifelong tempo on the mound. But he said he is confident pitching coach Jake Angier, who has come to Oregon from Sacramento State, will connect with his staff in a way that will smooth the transition. And, the pitching group returns almost everyone after an inconsistent 2019 ended with a 5.93 staff ERA.

"His delivery of message and how he connects with those pitchers is going to be different than anyone who was here in the past," Wasikowski said. "The hope is that Coach Angier can connect with some of those talented arms on the staff that may or may not have had success in the past and maximize their potential now."

Perhaps the best news for Wasikowski and Angier is that Kenyon Yovan is ready to return after pitching only two innings in 2019 because of an injury that turned out to be in his shoulder.

As a freshman in 2017, the right-hander out of Westview High finished with 15 saves and a 1.97 ERA. As a sophomore in 2018, he went 6-4 with five saves, a 2.98 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 84.2 innings.

"The great news is he's taking the right steps needed to be ready for opening weekend on the mound for us, as well as in the batter's box," Wasikowski said. "Kenyon's shown some serious progress. He's not quite where he wants to be yet, but he's progressed very, very well."

Yovan was expected to be available to pitch in relief for the opening weekend. A two-time Pac-12 first-team selection, Yovan should give the Ducks a boost on the infield and at the plate, too.

The Ducks return five pitchers who started five or more times in 2019. But for opening weekend, one of the starters is moving from the bullpen.

Junior right-hander Cullen Kafka who made a team-high 14 starts last season, going 5-5 with a 5.48 ERA, is the projected starter for Friday's opener against Minnesota.

Junior right-hander Peyton Fuller, an Ashland native whose 40 career appearances are all as a reliever, is slated to start Saturday against San Diego.

The third starter opening weekend will be junior left-hander Robert Ahlstrom. The Eugene native led the Ducks with a 3.93 ERA as a sophomore, when he went 5-7 in 10 starts.

Junior right-hander Brett Walker is the probable starter for Tuesday's game at Grand Canyon. Walker made 22 appearances last season (seven starts, 2-2, 5.60).

Seven other hurlers have previous experience and the Ducks have four lefties and eight righties opening the season as relief options.

Central Catholic High grad Cole Stringer is a senior lefty who made seven starts and 15 appearances last season (1-1, 5.68 ERA). His 24 career starts lead the team.

Junior left-hander Kolby Somers out of Century High pitched in 19 games last season (1-4, five starts, 8.58).

Senior left-hander Nico Tellache from Canby led the Ducks with 28 appearances in 2019, all out of the bullpen. He was 4-1 with six saves and a 5.01 ERA.

Other experienced right-handers in the bullpen are junior Hunter Breault and sophomores Keaton Chase and Christian Ciuffetelli.

As with the pitching, there is plenty of competition for spots in the field and in the batting order.

Sophomore Aaron Zavala returns at catcher after the South Salem High product hit .273. Three newcomers: touted freshman Jack Scanlon, junior JC transfer Sam Olsson and freshman Parker Schmidt from Las Vegas, Nevada could see time behind the plate.

The Ducks must replace last season's top hitter. Infielder Spencer Steer who was the 90th pick in the June draft by the Minnesota Twins.

The most settled position players appear to be senior Gabe Matthews at first base, Tanner Smith somewhere in the outfield and Sam Novitzke at second base.

Matthews tied with Steer with a team-high six homers as a junior, and his .290 average is second behind Novitzke (.300) among returning hitters.

Smith hit second in the order as a freshman last season and had the team's second-best average in Pac-12 games. He hit .284 overall, with four home runs and nine doubles.  

Another sophomore, transfer Gavin Grant, who played at Tacoma Community College last season, is the projected starter at shortstop.

Freshman Josh Kasevich from Palo Alto is the probable third baseman to open the season.

Grant and Kasevich are two of several newcomers who could earn significant roles. Wasikowski added eight freshmen to the roster and said catcher/RHP Jack Scanlon out of Suffern, New York and first baseman/outfielder Anthony Hall from San Diego, California have the potential to be significant additions.

Hall and junior Anthony Williams figure to see time in center field to open the season.

"Anthony Hall and Jack Scanlon both have tremendous power. They're big, strong, physical kids that really look the part," Wasikowski said. But, the coach emphasized, "those players have zero college at-bats."

Scanlon was a highly-touted recruit who de-commited from Texas Tech in the summer and chose Oregon over multiple offers. Hall was a 35th-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in June.

As part of his plan to make Oregon baseball a hot ticket in Eugene, Wasikowski wants to have a lineup capable of hitting for power. But that might take some time to develop.

"Do we have it? We have pieces of it," Wasikowski said. "It shows up in our practice structure. Many of these guys have shown at the Division-I level that they're power-type guys. It is in a lot of their toolboxes, and it's up to us as a coaching staff to get it out of them."

Matthews, Smith and sophomore outfielder A.J. Miller are among those who could hold down middle-of-the-order slots.

Wasikowski sees the 2020 Ducks as a team that drives the ball to the gaps and is aggressive on the basepaths when appropriate. That might not mean stealing a bunch of bases, but expect plenty of hit-and-run plays.

Wasikowski knows the Oregon program and the Pac-12, having spent five seasons as an assistant to Horton before becoming the head coach at Purdue in 2017. In his second season, the Boilermakers made the NCAA regionals for only the third time in program history.

He said the challenge at Oregon is much different from what he found at Purdue because, despite struggling to win in recent seasons, Horton's baseball knowledge and coaching staff were among the best anywhere in college baseball.

"I'm not taking a shot at anything at Purdue, but I am saying that specifically at Oregon there was great knowledge and wisdom," Wasikowski said. "Why the team didn't win at the level that folks would like to see it around here? Those are things we're trying to uncover on a daily basis and address, and just get better."

Over Horton's 11 seasons, Oregon had some good players transfer, or choose pro ball over college after committing to Oregon.

Wasikowski, who consistently landed top recruits during his time as an assistant coach at Florida, Arizona and Oregon, said he won't shy away from recruiting elite players just because they might end up choosing to take millions to turn pro out of high school.

"First and foremost, we want to get the best players around us. We want to get the best players in Eugene, in Oregon. I want to recruit this area extremely hard," he said. "I don't want these guys going to other programs.

"Second, we're not going to shy away from the player that may sign a professional contract."

He pointed to Adley Rutschman at Oregon State and Vanderbilt pitching star Kumar Rocker — the two most recent College World Series Outstanding Player award winners — as guys who could have signed for millions but chose the college path.

"Just because there's a chance of someone signing a pro contract, I don't think (avoiding him) is something I'm interested in doing," Wasikowski said. "I want to take the best possible player, and I want to do the best job we can as a staff of showing those players why going to college is better for you than signing a professional contract."

Recruiting elite talent is a priority for any program that aspires to reach the College World Series, which is the goal Wasikowski came to Eugene to chase.

"The biggest thing for us right now," he said, "is we're trying to connect with the community, not only with coaches in the community, but the community itself. We want to people around this area to know we're honored to be with them in their community and it's really their program.

"We're looking to try to develop a product they can stand behind and feel proud of, and want to come to the park every day we play."

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