Each time Oregon baseball reaches the ninth inning with a narrow lead, a telling sound takes over PK Park.
“Rest in Peace,” the theme song the infamous WWE character, the Undertaker, booms over the stadium speakers as Oregon’s own mortician emerges from the bullpen.
Enter Kenyon Yovan, the Ducks’ freshman phenom, who has racked up more saves than any underclassman in the country and parachuted into the closer role to hold together an Oregon team during a rocky 2017 season.
“I just want to make sure my first five pitches are better than my last five,” Yovan said. “That’s always the goal.”
More often than not this season, they have been. Yovan owns a 2.08 ERA and has converted 14 saves in 15 tries. He has 34 strikeouts to just six walks and has recorded the final out in more than half of Oregon’s 29 wins this season. He has done all this during a freshman season when most 18-year-olds are supposed to be playing catch-up to the Pac-12 upperclassmen.
“Words can’t describe it,” Oregon head coach George Horton says of Yovan’s impact. “I continue to say he’s had a spectacular freshman year — not only numbers-wise, but presence-wise. You put a lot of burden on a young man to be ‘that guy’ on his college baseball team and he’s embraced that in a big way.”
Oregon boasts a star-studded list of shutdown closers in recent years, including MLB draft picks Jimmy Sherfy and Stephen Nogosek. None has made as strong an early impact as Yovan.
In truth getting on the field at Oregon was a bigger task for Yovan than any opposing batter has presented.
As a senior at Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon, Yovan struck out 133 batters in 71 innings and racked up every possible individual award: USA Today, the Oregonian and Baseball America all tabbed him as the top player in the state.
Yovan committed to Oregon midway through his sophomore year of high school and stayed steadfast in his commitment, even after offers from Pac-12 powerhouses such as Oregon State and Washington came flooding in.
“It was April of his sophomore year,” Yovan’s father, Jake Yovan said. “Kenyon goes, ‘You know what, dad? I want a chance at that. I want a chance to help get Oregon to Omaha. If I go for it and it doesn’t happen, then I had my chance. But if I’m part of the reason we get there and do well, nobody will ever take that away from me.’”
But before he ever put on an Oregon uniform, Yovan’s dream scenario began to splinter.
He officially signed with the Ducks during his senior year of high school and turned down a pro contract from the Seattle Mariners after the team selected him in the 34th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. But he did not meet the academic standards of the university and had to take summer classes in order to become eligible in the fall. Early in the summer, he hurt his hand and was unable to perform any baseball activities, other than some light throwing, for the weeks that followed.
Then, two months into his freshman year of college, his mother, Kerry, was diagnosed with amelanotic melanoma. After two major surgeries and a handful of minor ones, there is no evidence that the disease has returned. Kerry hasn’t missed a single Oregon home series this season and is seated down the right field line at PK Park early enough to watch batting practice on most days.
“That’s the other part that was really tough about that freshman year,” Jake Yovan said. “He is behind in class, and his mom was diagnosed with cancer all in that same time frame. He grew up quick.”
The hand injury may have been a blessing in disguise; Yovan stashed himself away in the Jaqua Academic Center over the summer and did what was needed to become eligible. As Jake tells it, the family grew up in Gladstone, a suburb outside of Portland, before Kenyon transferred to Westview after eighth grade. It made for a difficult transition as Kenyon converted to a larger school and the curriculums between the two school districts didn’t line up.
“He struggled a little bit with his grades and understanding what the tutors are doing and how to have it together,” Jake Yovan said. “It was a lot on him, in my opinion.”
According to Jake, Kenyon finished winter term at Oregon with a 3.35 GPA.
Now, the biggest problem that Yovan has presented Oregon coaches is the nagging fear that he is being underutilized. Yovan has two-way potential as a pitcher and hitter and has started in the designated-hitter spot several times for Oregon. Horton has gone so far as to compare him to former Oregon State standout Dylan Davis, who hit .335 with five homers in 2013 while also working as a relief pitcher before being taken in the third round of the MLB Draft.
“(Yovan’s) got explosion in his bat,” Horton said. “Life in his bat. He’s got holes in his swing a little bit now, and we’d have to work on correcting that. … But don’t all young hitters?”
There have been stints this season where Yovan has gone 10 days without taking the mound. With a starting rotation that has had its fair share of issues on Saturdays and Sundays, there has been plenty of temptation for Horton to throw Yovan into the starting mix.
“You go into our staff meetings, “ Horton said. “If we’re struggling on Sunday, and you’re sitting there, and Kenyon’s not getting to pitch when it matters, do you start training him for the starting job? … It’s something that we have considered.”
It may turn out, however, that Yovan’s best long-term fit is where he’s at right now in the closer spot.
He and Jake have a long-standing tradition of Jake bringing a Rockstar energy drink to him before every game. An adrenaline-junky who feeds off the emotion of the game, Yovan is now able to to channel all that energy into 15-20 pitches a game, as opposed 100.
“When you’ve got that guy at the back of the pen, you know it’s almost automatic. Just game over,” Oregon shortstop Kyle Kasser said.
Locking down the ninth inning is a skill that runs in the family. Yovan’s cousin, Keynan Middleton, grew up playing in the Portland area as well, and was recently promoted to the majors by the Los Angeles Angels after the team drafted him in the third round of the 2013 MLB Draft.
Middleton was drafted as a starter, but saw his career skyrocket once he made the move to the bullpen. He’s been a mentor for Yovan during the freshman’s own transition to the closer role.
“I’ve known (Middleton) since I was two years old and everything,” Yovan said. “Once he got drafted and he went through the minor leagues and everything, he told me what it’s like and what you’ve got to do to prepare and I took that into account. … I just try to play older than a freshman.”
Follow Jarrid Denney on Twitter @jarrid_denney