Beat Writer Notebook: Duck Baseball 2012

On Monday, the Oregon Ducks lost in the most ironic way possible. Considering they play in Eugene, where sunshine comes at a premium and is dormant for most of the college baseball season, it was the big round object in the sky that kept a smaller round object from landing in the glove of J.J. Altobelli or Brett Thomas.

Jimmy Rider's routine pop fly landed in left field, in fair territory. Derek Toadvine, standing on second base, raced for home. The throw was woefully late, and the Kent State Golden Flashes were soon dancing on the turf at PK Park, feet away from the Ducks logo, celebrating a trip to the College World Series.

Altobelli and Thomas sat in foul territory and looked on in disbelief. The 4,825 in attendance that had rocked the park moments earlier and created an atmosphere reminiscent of a big Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium, fell silent.

In what will likely go down as the most successful year in University of Oregon athletic history, it ended in a cruel way. But, baseball is a cruel game, as stated by head coach George Horton and first baseman Ryon Healy. You choose to play it, you roll with the punches, and sometimes, you get the short end of the stick.

The loss will sting. The wounds will take time to heal. Until the Ducks take the field next February, the image of a sea of yellow jerseys amassed in a dog-pile will be etched in the mind of every returning player.

"I think this group came as close as any group I've ever been around to doing everything they could," UO head coach George Horton said.

But, what may be lost in the fold of the loss is the staggering improvement the Ducks have made in such a short time, considering the fact that last season they weren't getting along. Chemistry issues hampered the young team that was expected to get back to the NCAA playoffs after the 2010 team made a surprise trip to a regional series.

Despite having a rock solid pitching staff led by Tyler Anderson, Madison Boer and Christian Jones, the weight of the expectations caused the team to crumble. There were multiple losing streaks and multiple questionable efforts. At one point, the Ducks blew a seven- run lead to Stanford at home in two innings and lost. They didn't win a single conference series on the road and stumbled to an 11-16 record against then-Pac-10 opponents.

Second baseman Danny Pulfer openly questioned the team's effort over the season, shortstop KC Serna was suspended multiple times and never regained form, and starting outfielder Marcus Piazzisi was unexpectedly kicked off the team after a disagreement with Horton in the middle of the season.

The ballclub stumbled to a 33-26-1 record because of it and missed the playoffs.

Coming into the 2012 season, the Ducks were dealt a blow when it was announced that Jones was going to have to miss the season after getting Tommy John surgery. The already thin pitching staff was going to have to rely on Alex Keudell as their new ace and expectations for the team were low.

Fast forward to Monday, when the Ducks were a run away from Omaha. A few breaks here or there, and they could've been in Kent State's shoes. Take nothing away from the Golden Flashes. They outplayed Oregon all weekend and they will be a terrific underdog story (with Stony Brook) at the College World Series.

But, what the 2011 Ducks couldn't accomplish, the 2012 version did. The 46 wins and 19 in conference were both program bests.

Oregon went on a 10-game winning streak after losing their opener to Hawaii. They took series' from No. 5 UCLA, No. 6 Stanford and No. 10 Arizona on the road. Though they lost their shot at a conference championship thanks to a sweep at Oregon State, they managed a No. 5 national seed for the playoffs.

Keudell had a career year on the way to a nine-game winning streak that saw him break the program record for wins in a season (11) and wins over a career (23). He also won the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year award.

The bullpen that had let many leads slip away a year prior became rock solid behind the arms of Joey Housey, Tommy Thorpe, and Jimmie Sherfy.

And above all, Horton praised the team's chemistry. There weren't issues in the clubhouse or on the road. Flight attendants would approach Horton to tell him how well behaved his team was.

Players made their workouts on time and were committed to the cause. Multiple times during the season, the mustachioed manager said that it was one of the finest groups of young men that he had ever been around.

"We lift weights at 6:20 (every morning)," Horton said. "They're 18-22 year olds, sometimes they stay up late at night, I would imagine. We had one kid out of 35 guys that was five minutes late, one time."

The players, in turn, embraced Horton's tutelage and it paid off.

"It's made me a better person," Thomas said.

"He's really been a teacher to us more than a coach," Healy said. "He's really taught us life lessons on and off the field more than I could ever expect and I've only been here two years."

The special season ended in a not so special way. But, next year will be another test. The bar has been raised once more, and the Ducks will have to deal with high expectations very much in the same way that the 2010 team did. Whether or not they live up to them is yet to be seen.

But, the groundwork has been laid by a group of underclassmen that will now take over as team leaders. This season may not have brought a championship, but it brought improvements in other areas that could go a long way in improving what happens on the field.

"There's national champions on the field and there's national champions as far as makeup and the game of life," Horton said. "We got two out of three."

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