Zavala Hitting His Stride
For the past four seasons, there have been no more consistent faces of Oregon baseball than Kenyon Yovan and Gabe Matthews.
Other contemporaries have come and gone — David Peterson as the Ducks' ace when they were freshmen, Spencer Steer in the power-hitting corner-infield role a couple years later. But since 2017, Oregon fans have been able to count on seeing Matthews playing first base and hitting in the middle of the lineup, while Yovan spent two years dominating on the mound before returning from injury in 2020 for a renaissance as a power bat.
The abbreviated 2020 season also saw Matthews and Yovan welcome a new contemporary: Salem native Aaron Zavala, who hit .418 with a team-high 22 RBIs in 15 games, earning third-team all-America recognition from Collegiate Baseball. When the Ducks open the 2021 season against Omaha in PK Park on Friday (4 p.m., Oregon Live Stream), Zavala will be near the top of the lineup along with Matthews and Yovan, UO coach Mark Wasikowski said.
"Aaron showed me he can hit," Wasikowski said. "So we need to find a place for him to play, and play every day."
Last season that was either in right field or at third base. The Ducks added graduate transfer Nick Bellafronto to play the hot corner this spring, so Zavala has spent this offseason acclimating to full-time duty in the outfield.
At the plate, though, Zavala hasn't tried to tinker with much. Not after the success his approach yielded in his breakout 2020 season.
"Right now it's the same as it was last year," Zavala said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
A former Oregon high school state player of the year, Zavala hit a solid .273 as a freshman. He scorched the ball in six February appearances, hitting .542 with four three-hit performances in the first six games of his career.
Conference play was a different story; Zavala had just one multi-hit game during Pac-12 play as a freshman. And Oregon's 2020 season was cut short the very week conference play was scheduled to begin for the Ducks.
So Zavala will have something to prove when Pac-12 games commence this season, which for the Ducks will be a home series against Arizona State beginning March 19. But as the 2021 season dawns, he's a confident hitter — confident, and eager.
"Personally, this is the longest I've gone without playing in a baseball game," Zavala said. "Hopefully we can get right back in there and get going."
The Ducks would love to see Zavala pick up this weekend where he left off last spring. Over his final 10 games of the 2020 campaign, he had seven multi-hit games. Oregon's season finale, at Hawaii last March 8, featured Zavala's first and only home run of the season.
Was it frustrating to have the season cut short while on such a hot streak? Sure. But the experience of dealing with all the uncertainty 2020 presented should pay dividends, Zavala said.
"It taught us how to play through adversity, which is good for us," he said.
The extended break from games provided plenty of practice time for Zavala in the outfield. Between last year's eight starts there, and the practice time since, it's starting to feel like home.
"I'd say I'm pretty comfortable now," Zavala said. "It feels like a normal position for me."
If Zavala can get as comfortable in the outfield as he was at the plate for the Ducks last season, his value will only increase. But already, he's in the mix with fifth-year guys Matthews and Yovan as Oregon's most reliable known commodities entering the 2021 season.