SCOTTSDALE — The Ducks have arrived in Arizona, soaking in the dry heat and sunny Scottsdale skies.
Oregon held a practice Tuesday afternoon ahead of Wednesday’s inaugural Pac-12 Baseball Tournament opener. The Ducks, who were playing in Eugene rain not too long ago, brought their full intensity in the 96-degree Phoenix weather at Indian School Park & Tennis Center.
“We had a good, short, crisp workout,” head coach Mark Wasikowski said. “Took ground balls, fly balls, got used to just being outside again on the natural grass. It was a good day.”
Oregon outfielder Tanner Smith said he personally likes playing in the warmth.
“Definitely being a hitter, just seeing the ball travel a lot further in the heat, with the little bit of the wind on your side, it’s really nice as a hitter,” Smith said.
After some initial stretching in left field, the Ducks took infield practice. Assistant coach Marcus Hinkle led the drills, hitting the ball around the infield to players like Josh Kasevich, Drew Cowley, Gavin Grant, Sam Novitske, Jacob Walsh and Tyler Ganus.
The practice operated like a well-oiled machine, with players swiftly rotating spots and diving for every ball. Kasevich left the field with the dirtiest pants and the reddest face of anyone on the team. He made one smooth throw after another while manning shortstop.
“John Mitchell, our equipment guy, has gotta take more blood out of his pants just because he’s diving every day around the field,” Wasikowski said of Kasevich. “Him, Gavin Grant and these guys just love to play and get dirty.”
On one play, Hinkle wanted Kasevich to field the ball barehanded. Kasevich used his glove, to which Hinkle made him do the play again. It was clear the players and coaches were holding themselves to a high standard throughout the two-hour practice.
After Hinkle finished hitting to the infielders, the Ducks took batting practice for the majority of the two hour window. Wasikowski and Hinkle switched off between pitching duties, while Logan Mercado, Christian Ciuffetelli and RJ Gordon continued hitting balls to fielders. Most of the pitching staff practiced in the outfield.
“I like to say that the practices are probably two times as hard as playing in the game,” Smith said. “It’s part of our preparation and making sure we’re ready to go for whatever we face.”
Freshman Jacob Walsh, whose bat has heated up recently following a rough stretch, hit the ball with more authority during practice, resulting in a higher number of line drives.
“I know Coach [Jack] Marder has been trying to flatten him out and try to get him into his legs a little bit more,” Wasikowski said. “I think it’s showing that he is. The last couple of weeks in games he’s been a lot better as well… He’s got such a pure, good swing.”
The players have still been having fun amidst the heat and the heightened level of competition. They arrived Monday and went Go-Karting at Octane Raceway before heading to bed early. Oregon right-hander Christian Ciuffetelli said catcher Anson Aroz “killed everyone,” even breaking his own record afterwards.
“He must be going there every week or something back in Eugene,” Ciuffetelli said.
Smith, meanwhile, said the racer who caught his eye was Wasikowski.
“I didn’t really see him hitting the brakes too much,” Smith said. “There was a little bump in between him and Marder. It was a fun day to be a Duck.”
The players have been professing for weeks that they’re having more fun and playing with more energy than they were previously. The major turning point was their 3-0 loss to University of California San Diego on May 10, after which they had a team meeting that shook things up both on and off the field.
Wasikowski said he thinks the team is playing with less stress.
“I feel like these guys are just playing to play now,” he said. “Just like you would when you were really young and just playing baseball because you wanted to be the dirtiest guy when you left the field, and when you’re eating pizza and having a Coke with your family at the pizza parlor after.”
“You just wanted to be the dirtiest guy there playing the video games,” he added. “And that’s how we’re practicing now and playing, is a bunch of kids that just want to be the dirtiest guy at the pizza parlor.”
Oregon will kick off tournament play bright and early Wednesday at 9 a.m. against Arizona. The Ducks have a healthy 30-man roster, including catcher Josiah Cromwick who’s been out recently.
Ciuffetelli will start for the Ducks with Gordon likely relieving him, just as Oregon has done the last two weeks. The duo helped the Ducks take down the Wildcats 10-4 last Thursday. With the early start, Ciuffetelli said he’ll try to go through his routine the normal amount of time before the game.
After Ciuffetelli, Wasikowski said the pitching staff is “all hands on deck.” The next two probable starters are Jace Stoffal and Isaac Ayon, but the rest is to be determined with the Ducks potentially playing games Friday and/or Saturday.
“We’re here to win a conference tournament championship,” Wasikowski said. “You gotta win several games, hopefully four in a row. You can’t do that all in one day, but you can win one in a row.”