Oregon baseball looks for redemption in 2012

After a turbulent third year filled with missed opportunities and chemistry issues that resulted in missing the postseason, Oregon Ducks manager George Horton clearly explained the simple philosophy for this season's squad.

"We have something to prove," Horton said.

Horton said that the Ducks blew too many games to deserve making the playoffs and acknowledged that cliques within the team contributed to poor team chemistry. With that memory still fresh in their minds, the team has taken a more controlled approach heading into the 2012 season.

"This year we are just trying to take things one day at a time and control this practice right now and just worry about everything in the future when it comes," junior shortstop J.J. Altobelli said.

Horton and co. have once again put together a top-10 recruiting class that includes three top-200 players from the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft analysis. Among those turning heads in practice thus far include Billy Flamion, Thomas Thorpe, Jake Reed, Shaun Chase and Jordan Spencer. Thorpe is a lefty and could see some time on the mound early with the injury to Jones.

"I think they're going to be good," senior pitcher Alex Keudell said of the freshmen. "They've handled themselves really well throughout the fall and the spring, so I think it'll be good."

The team isn't the only thing that has changed as a new coaching staff with familiar faces has entered the mix. Hitting coach Jay Uhlman returns to the program after a brief stint at Kansas, while pitching coach Dean Stiles returns to the program after leaving Lane Community College. Offensive guru Mark Wasikowski rounds out the staff after spending 10 years at Arizona. In addition, the players have raved about Wasikowski, who is changing the offensive philosophy of a team that struggled to produce runs in clutch situations last season.

"He's a great coach," Altobelli said. "He knows a lot about hitting and he's really pushed us to become better hitters."

The Ducks struggled last season with a bevy of injuries to key players and have already been bitten hard before this season can get under way. Junior left hander Christian Jones is one of three Ducks who will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. Freshmen Sam Johnson and Cole Wiper will also go under the knife, though their injuries were pre-existing from high school.

Jones will be relegated to a mentor role for the incoming pitchers, helping them understand their role as he recovers from injury. He was expected to step in with Keudell and fill the void the Madison Boer and Tyler Anderson left when they turned pro after last season.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to be there for the younger guys and be a presence in the dugout so we can win as many games as we can," Jones said.

Horton said that he would be getting creative with the pitching rotation due to Jones' absence. The series finale starter may be whoever is left in the bullpen come game time and he said that there are plenty of innings up for grabs for whoever steps up and wants the position.

So far, the infield positions are filled for opening day but that the outfield race remains open. Third base will be manned by freshman Thomas Walker while Altobelli moves from third base to shortstop — a position he played in high school. Sophomore Aaron Payne will take over at second base in place of the departed Danny Pulfer and sophomore Ryon Healy will resume his role from the end of last season at first base.

Redshirt senior Brett Hambright will take over duties behind the plate after losing 20 pounds in the offseason to get into better shape. Sophomore Aaron Jones will also see time behind the plate when Hambright is given a day off.

"The most positive thing I can say about these youngsters is half our team is new guys and everything we've thrown at them they've embraced and accepted the challenge and responded in a very positive manner," Horton said.

The Ducks open up the season with a rough stretch on the road starting with a four game series at Hawaii before traveling all the way to Tennessee to take on Belmont and finishing with a three game series against No. 10 Vanderbilt. The Ducks first home contest isn't until Feb. 28 when they play the University of Portland.

"We get tested right out of the gate, not only with quality opponents, but we play eight games in 10 days," Horton said.

Keudell will start the first game at Hawaii on Feb. 17, but will be on a pitch count due to not logging enough bullpen time after being shut down briefly during the offseason. The Ducks split a four game set in Honolulu last season.

"We're going to get some answers as to how those young men perform, and how we perform, in a hurry," Horton said.

Though success is expected, the biggest thing the team wants to avoid is putting too much pressure on themselves with high expectations as they did a year ago.

"We fell into that trap of expectations last year and you can't really control that," Horton said. "It's basically what can we do today to get better and improve and earn our way to whatever accolades we might get."

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