It’s been a long time coming for the Oregon baseball team.
When they play their first game, which is tentatively scheduled for February 19, it will have been nearly a year since they took the field for their last competitive game.
In October, the team returned to practices with renewed COVID-19 protocols. At this point, they’ve had some time to assess the roster and get an idea of what this year’s team is going to look like.
“Overall, our roster has really improved in terms of the talent,” head coach Mark Wasikowski said. “We have obviously a thicker roster than in previous years...We’re working at about a 43-player roster currently.”
The expanded roster is due to the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes because of the pandemic, as well as an influx of new additions to the team.
“I think overall you’ll see better talent from top to bottom of depth throughout the roster,” Wasikowski said.
One area that is particularly strong compared to last year is the starting pitching.
“Two of those freshman kids, Isaac Ayon and Rio Britton, have as good of young arms that we’ve seen come through the Oregon program,” Wasikowski said. He also named Caleb Sloan, Logan Mercado and Scott Ellis as pitching additions who could help the team.
Wasikowski’s expectation for his returning starting pitchers, namely Robert Ahlstrom, Cullen Kafka, Brett Walker, Peyton Fuller and Andrew Mosiello, is to match up with the best pitchers in the country.
“They could eat innings last year, but they were inconsistent...,” Wasikowski said of his starting staff. “That’s where we need to be as a program, to where we can make the claim that Omaha is a reality in terms of getting to the College World Series.”
The crowded roster will provide greater incentive for players to perform well. Each player is going to have to earn their spot, and if they don’t perform at the level they need to compete, there will always be someone waiting in the wings behind them.
“With all the guys that we have new, it makes it more competitive,” Walker said.
On the offensive side, the depth is stronger all around, from the outfield, to the infield, to the catcher position. Another thing Wasikowski emphasized was the amount of large guys around the infield.
“You’re going to see a physical group. You’re going to see size,” he said.
A 56-game schedule is currently set in place, and the Ducks will release it to the public as soon as the Pac-12 tells them they’re allowed to. As the season draws near, the team is still making safety a priority.
“There are no exceptions when it comes to protocol and masking and things like that,” Wasikowski said. “So whatever the experts are going to tell us...we need to embrace it and need to do what they say to have a season.”
With such a long delay since last year, they’ve gotten to learn from other sports that have already had their seasons. They’ve seen how typically great teams such as Kentucky basketball and LSU football have struggled during the pandemic, as well as how lesser teams have surprised. Wasikowski believes that college baseball will be no different.
“We’re trying to understand the reasons why that’s happened, and just trying to really keep it simple that we have the opportunity to play right now,” he said.
Ultimately, the team is lucky to be playing at all. With a newfound appreciation for the game they’ve gained from their time off, they’ll be raring to get back on the field.
“Personally, this is the longest I’ve gone without playing in a baseball game,” outfielder and third baseman Aaron Zavala said. “So hopefully we can just get right back in there in stride and get going.”