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Ducks' win in hostile park buoys prospects

Civil War match just a preview to coach€sÄôs plan for the season


by: COURTESY OF ERIC EVANS - Ryon Healy has been one of the top producers for the offensively challenged Oregon Ducks, who have rode strong pitching to a high national ranking and Pac-12 contention.CORVALLIS — Oregon’s 6-3 win over Oregon State at Goss Stadium could be a harbinger of things ahead for the Ducks.

That’s the goal of coach George Horton as the Ducks head into an important three-game Pac-12 series at California beginning Friday.

“Hopefully this will create some positive momentum so we can get a series on the road,” Horton said after the Ducks’ non-conference victory.

The Bears have won series against the Ducks in Berkeley the last two times the teams have met there. Horton said he won’t soon forget his first UO visit to Strawberry Canyon in 2009, when the Ducks won the middle game shoehorned by 14-1 and 11-1 defeats.

“I’ve never been more disappointed with a team than I was with our team on that weekend,” Horton says.

Oregon (24-8 overall, 9-3 in Pac-12 play) is right there with Oregon State (25-6, 7-2) atop the conference standings.

“Even though we have one more loss than the Beavs, it says Oregon in first place,” Horton says. “We’d like to be undefeated, but we’ll take it.”

Horton’s fifth Oregon team is much like its predecessors — stocked deep with pitching talent and defensive prowess, wanting in the hitting department.

The Ducks own one of the conference’s best pitching staffs, sporting a 2.99 ERA heading into the Cal series. Freshman right-hander Cole Irwin (6-1, 3.11 ERA) joins sophomore left-hander Tommy Thorpe (4-3, 3.35) and sophomore righty Jake Reed (3-3, 3.75) as the weekend starters. Senior southpaw Christian Jones (0-1, 0.59) and right-handed junior closer Jimmy Sherfy (2-0, 1.25, nine saves) headline a deep bullpen.

Oregon enters the weekend tied for first nationally with a .988 fielding percentage. Outfielders Brett Thomas and Scott Heinemann each made spectacular defensive plays against the Beavers. Horton considers senior J.J. Altobelli as good defensively as any shortstop in the country.

Offense has been the Achilles’ heel since the restoration of Oregon’s program in 2009, but the bats showed signs of awakening in a 16-3 win in the series windup at Arizona State last Sunday.

“Our offense caught a stride in Tempe,” junior second baseman Aaron Payne says. “We were putting good swings on it all weekend.

“There are a lot of places easier to hit than in (Eugene’s) PK Park, so maybe being on the road helps. A lot of our hitters are feeling good right now, and we’ve been able to put up some runs.”

Oregon’s money man is 6-5, 215-pound junior first baseman Ryon Healy, who is hitting .349 with five home runs and 31 RBIs in 32 games. Freshman third baseman Mitchell Tolman out of Lake Forest, Calif. (.356) is the only other Duck hitting better than .300.

The Ducks play plenty of small ball, taking pitches, working for walks, bunting and working hard to score their runs. They benefitted from six walks, four hit batsmen and four wild pitches Tuesday against the Beavers.

“We’re not the type of team that comes out and bangs it all over the field,” Horton says. “We have to find the right pitches. That takes patience.”

Horton was buoyed by his club’s performance in a hostile environment Tuesday at Goss Stadium, where the Ducks had gone 1-9 in their four previous seasons.

“We showed maturity and professionalism through some of the negativism you get” at Goss, the UO coach says. “There’s some real tough stuff that comes out at times, because (the OSU fans) are passionate about their team. Our guys handled it with more maturity than when they’ve come in here in the past.”

There are four more Civil War meetings this season — the Pac-12 series at PK Park from May 17-19 and another non-conference matchup at Corvallis on May 21.

“We have at least four more games with them,” Horton says. “I’m looking forward to that, because of the respect we have for them.”

The Ducks hope they’ll put it together well enough to make a run at a league championship.

“We have a good shot at it,” Payne says. “We have a lot of experience, great pitching and solid defense. If our offense gets rolling, we should be tough.”

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