Drukarev: Understated approach could serve Oregon baseball well

At about this time last year, the excitement surrounding Oregon’s still-infant baseball program was palpable. Entering only its third year of existence (the sport was reinstated at the University prior to the 2009 season), the Ducks returned many key players from the 2010 NCAA Tournament team and were picked by the Pac-10 coaches to finish fourth in the conference.

National pundits had an even more optimistic view. Oregon was ranked in the top-15 by four collegiate baseball preseason polls, including No. 9 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 10 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll. The Ducks’ high ranking was based upon the return of six starters from the 2010 team and several talented pitchers like Tyler Anderson, who was drafted in the first round of last year’s MLB draft.  @@[email protected]@

But once the season started, Oregon never found its rhythm. To begin the season, shortstop KC Serna, who hit .348 in 2010, was suspended for first seven games for a violation of team rules. And while the pitching staff did its part, tallying a sparkling staff ERA of 2.95, it quickly became apparent that even after Serna returned, the offense would be incapable of consistently scoring runs; the Ducks finished the season with a .258 batting average and .346 slugging percentage. @@[email protected]@

Moreover, while I’m not a big believer in the impact of team chemistry, leadership, and other intangibles on baseball, the Ducks really did seem to be lacking in those categories. Oregon never once came back from a deficit after the sixth inning and admittedly struggled with team chemistry.

Not even Duck coach George Horton shaving his legendary mustache could change the teams fortunes, and a four-game winning streak to end the year wasn’t enough to push Oregon into the postseason. @@[email protected]@

This season, after seven players from last year’s team signed MLB contracts, there’s a decidedly different feel to the group. At the team’s media day on Wednesday, there was no discussion of winning a College World Series, no lofty goals, not even much of a sense of confidence.

“I think we can win some games, and I want us to prove to people that we’re not going to be walked over,” said No. 1 starter Alex Keudell, not exactly a bold proclamation.

In a normal year for a normal team, I’d find that attitude to be a bit disturbing. But in light of last season’s failure, I think it could actually play to Oregon’s advantage. This season, the Ducks seem to be relishing the role of underdog. At the media day, Horton wasn’t shy about downplaying the talent level on the team, while raving about the intangibles.

“We might be a little short for Pac-12 standards and national prominence standards as far as draft choices, but I think we’re going to make up for that in mental toughness, chemistry and our ability to get a lot out of what we have,” Horton said.

In many ways, this year’s team resembles the 2010 squad. That year’s team was led by sophomores like Anderson, Serna, Danny Pulfer, Scott McGough and Keudell, among others. Projected to finish dead last in conference play in the preseason coaches’ poll, that 2010 team finished 40-24 and made the postseason. @@[email protected]@

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 2012 club pull off a similar feat. Last year’s impressive class of true freshmen have another year to mature physically and mentally. Sophomore position players like Ryon Healy, Aaron Jones, Aaron Payne, Brett Thomas and others should be better equipped to handle Pac-12 pitching. @@[email protected]@

Moreover, if you believe Oregon, the chemistry issues of 2011 made a bigger impact on the team that we might have realized.

“I think last year we had a little division between the hitters and pitchers and this year we’re trying to stay with each other and not divide,” Keudell said.

Without the high volume of draft-eligible juniors and seniors who may have already had a foot out the door a year ago, it might be easier for Oregon to stay together. And fact is, even without the seven MLB picks, the roster is still littered with talent from four highly ranked recruiting classes.

All told, Oregon should have enough pieces to contend for its second NCAA Tournament berth since the program was reinstated, even if the Duck players and coaches don’t want to say it.

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