Practice Begins For UO Baseball Team
While waiting for the 2021 baseball season to arrive, Mark Wasikowski has been watching how things play out for other sports around the collegiate landscape as they compete during a pandemic.
Among his takeaways: Some of the "bluebloods" of college athletics – think Kentucky men's basketball, or LSU football – haven't enjoyed the same level of success in recent months as in years past. And as the college baseball season nears, Wasikowski wants that on the minds of his Oregon baseball team.
"I think you're going to see the same thing in college baseball," Wasikowski said. "Across the board, whether it's SEC or Pac or whatever."
The Ducks begin practice Friday, and there seem to be two easy lessons to be drawn from Wasikowski's observation. The first: Even the best programs can be vulnerable to being thrown off track by the pandemic. And also: If the bluebloods stumble, someone else has the chance to take advantage.
As the Ducks open practice Friday, Wasikowski wants them ready to take advantage of whatever 2021 holds. They're looking to build on an abbreviated 2020 season that saw Oregon go 8-7. And they're looking to take another step in the right direction.
"I think overall," Wasikowski said, "you'll see better talent from top to bottom."
Offensively, the Ducks got good news when veterans Kenyon Yovan and Gabe Matthews opted to return for a fifth season. Yovan is a preseason all-American and Matthews already holds multiple program records, and they'll anchor the middle of Oregon's lineup.
The pitching rotation returns intact, led by veterans Robert Ahlstrom and Cullen Kafka, and 2020 breakout contributors Brett Walker and Peyton Fuller. That group will look to take the next step this spring, into a rotation that more than holds its own in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, a number of exciting new faces could factor in as bullpen arms – including potentially Yovan, as he continues progressing back from the injury that sidelined him in 2019.
Oregon's 2021 schedule was announced Friday, and opens Feb. 19 at PK Park against Omaha. The Ducks open Pac-12 play when they host Arizona State on March 19, though they'll go on the road to play Oregon State in a nonconference series March 12-14.
As the Ducks settle into the routine of a season beginning Friday, they also know this spring won't be anything close to normal, as the pandemic remains ongoing.
"Take it seriously," Wasikowski said of his message to the team. "There are no exceptions when it comes to protocols."
The Ducks don't expect to have fans in the stands when they play their home opener Feb. 19. What they do expect to do is cut a different profile in the field, thanks to work under head strength coach and program alum Darrell Hunter.
From veterans like Yovan and Matthews to newer faces including third baseman Nick Bellafronto and freshman outfielder Robby Ashford – also a quarterback on the UO football team – this Oregon baseball team is uniformly bigger and stronger.
"You're going to see a physical group," Wasikowski said. "You're going to see size."
Newcomers will be a factor in the bullpen as well. Transfer Caleb Sloan received a waiver to compete for the Ducks this season, providing a "power arm" out of the bullpen, Wasikowski said. Logan Mercado is a freshman with "pitch-ability" who Wasikowski compared with former UO starter Jeff Gold, and Scotty Ellis is a "super-athletic" athlete similar to the first Duck in the modern era to make the big leagues, Scott McGough.
And then there are right-hander Isaac Ayon and left-hander Rio Britton. Wasikowski called them "as good of young arms as we've seen come through the Oregon program," high praise given the pitchers who began their careers at PK Park and are now in the major leagues.
"We'll see how many innings they get right away, but there's a lot to like out of at least four of those freshman arms, and one of the transfers," Wasikowski said.
In Ahlstrom and Kafka, the Ducks return two of their mainstays in the rotation from both 2019 and 2020. Their challenge this preseason, along with Walker and Fuller, will be to show they can go toe-to-toe with the best the Pac-12 has to offer.
"They were good last year; they were solid," Wasikowski said. "Are those guys going to be so much better that they can match up with the best that's out there? That's the objective."