Oregon, Anderson Gaining Momentum On The Diamond
By David Lieberman
Potential. That's the word often used to describe the University of Oregon baseball program, and it makes sense, considering that the Ducks, after a 28-year hiatus from competition on the diamond, have burst onto the scene in one of the most dominant conferences in the country.
Baseball was relegated to a club sport at the University of Oregon from 1982 to 2009. However, two years after the program's revival, the Ducks began 2011 with a top-20 preseason ranking and a daunting heap of expectations.
Not everyone on the Pacific Coast foresaw such rampant ascension in the Ducks' cards — even with the backing of the athletic department and a proven dugout presence in head coach George Horton, a former national champion at powerhouse Cal State Fullerton.
Don't count junior starting pitcher Tyler Anderson among these doubters.
Twenty-six months ago, the image of a packed ballpark in Eugene was nothing more than a mirage. It's appropriate that Anderson has emerged from the barren deserts of Nevada to shape Horton's squad into a blossoming national power.
Anderson was selected in the 50th round of 2008 MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins following his senior year at Spring Valley High School in Las Vegas. But with multiple scholarships from traditional powers and a professional contract sitting on his plate, Tyler decided to become a Duck.
Why would Anderson, a top national prospect, have so much faith in Oregon's startup? Simply put, he knows what it takes to get a team off the ground.
When Anderson began his high school career at Spring Valley, the school had no track record of success. In fact, the program had no history at all.
"My freshman year, it was the first that the school had opened, the first year of a new baseball program," says the six-foot-four lefthander. "There were good coaches from around the state of Nevada there that had, in the past, had some success. I thought it would be cool to start a program there."
Anderson has taken that same upstart attitude to Eugene, and it has served him well. Though Oregon's status as a big time program hasn't come easily, Anderson has helped the Ducks gain respect, one pitch at a time.
In 2009, Anderson's freshman year, Oregon baseball was back — with a whimper. The team finished their comeback campaign at 14-42, including a dismal 4-23 mark in the grueling Pac-10. Anderson proved he had the mettle and arm of a Division I starting pitcher, but was wildly inconsistent during his first year campaign, finishing with a 2-9 record and a 6.26 ERA in 82 innings.
After a rough start that year, he was demoted from the top of Oregon's rotation before the start of conference play.
"My freshman year, we gave in to some things," Anderson says. "At the end of the year, we decided collectively that excuses weren't going to get the job done."
He offered no apologies for his missteps, only a commitment to progress. In the classroom -- as a political science major -- and on the mound, he made a concerted effort to move forward. The results have been noticeable. With the demands of travel and schoolwork on lockdown, things started to click.
"I think a lot of that's a mentality change for our team from my freshman year to sophomore year. We decided that we were going to work as hard as we could to get better each day," Anderson says. "No matter what game, what happened, we weren't going to make excuses for what was around."
Anderson, like the Ducks, was a question mark coming into 2010. After countless hours in bullpen sessions, Anderson returned to campus and promptly quieted his doubters by regaining the No. 1 spot in the rotation, a slot he has yet to give up.
The Ducks had a breakout season, advancing to the regional round of the NCAA playoffs in 2010 en route to a 40-24 overall record. Individually, Tyler emerged as a legitimate ace for Oregon, tallying a 7-5 record with a team-leading 2.98 ERA, good for 5th in the Pac-10.
Anderson's leap wasn't the result of an epiphany or a fundamental change in his mechanics. His betterment came as a result of hard training and a simplified mental approach.
"Honestly, on the mound, I try not to think about (control). In your bullpen throughout the week, your catch play sessions, you make sure you have your command, that you're throwing your strikes," Anderson says. "When you get out there, on the mound, in the game, in the uniform, it's time to compete and you let your competitive nature take over. You normally don't think about things as much."
Anderson displayed an impressive balance of power and control during his sophomore year, racking up 105 strikeouts in less than 103 innings pitched while walking only 33 batters. He was named an All-Pac-10 performer in 2010 (the Ducks' first since 1971) and entered 2011 as a second-team NCBWA Preseason All-America selection. He's also on the watch list for USA Baseball's Golden Spikes Award, an honor given to the nation's top college baseball player each season.
"All you can control is the work you put in. If things go the right way, it is nice to know someone, somewhere, thinks your work will pay off," Anderson says of the preseason accolades. "Rather than thinking you deserve it, it's motivation that your work is paying off, the hard work that got you there."
He doesn't appear to feel any added pressure as his draft stock and the expectations for Oregon's program continue to rise. Through seven starts this season, he's 4-1 with a microscopic 1.70 ERA. He's struck out 65 batters in less than 59 innings pitched, while limiting his opponents to a .193 average.
"This year, with some success last year, preseason rankings and everyone expecting us to be really good, we are no longer the underdogs," he says. "We've got the target on our chest and people are coming at us. That's the way we need to learn how to play."
Oregon and Anderson will have ample opportunity to prove their worth in the Pac-10, a conference that sent a record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament last season. With aspirations of a deep tournament run strong amongst long-time supporters and a new generation of Oregon fans, Anderson's turn at the top of the top of the rotation is more important to the program than ever.
Despite his professional potential, Anderson appears committed to spurning the majors until he's satisfied more immediate goals.
"If I were given the opportunity to play Major League Baseball when the time is right, I think it'd be awesome," Anderson allows. "As for now, my goal as a person and a baseball player is doing everything for the Ducks to win a national championship.
"Winning a championship at the college level could be one of the greatest experiences a player could go though. That's what's on my mind right now."
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