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Horton, Ducks will try to draw up Series team

Oregon has won 40 games three straight years, and in four of the past five seasons, and in 2012 advanced to the NCAA Tournament's super regional.

But the Ducks haven't made it to the College World Series.

So coach George Horton will go back to the drawing boards in 2015, his seventh season at the UO helm.

Oregon went 44-20 overall and finished fourth in the Pac-12 at 18-12. But the Ducks were 2-12 against ranked opponents and failed to survive the Vanderbilt regional.

"We're disappointed again, I guess," Horton says. "On one hand, I'm very proud of the guys. Not a lot of teams can say they won 44 games. It's quite an accomplishment. From that aspect, I feel very good.

"The other aspect, what did we really accomplish? We made a regional, but fourth place in the Pac-12 is not on my short list of goals. Even though it's a very tough league, we're always hoping to win that championship. The Beavers were the best team in the conference. We had some stuff to overcome, but we're disappointed we didn't make our way to the College World Series."

Some of the "stuff" included injuries to starting pitchers Cole Irvin and Matt Krook and third baseman Scott Heineman. Irvin missed the entire season and Krook all but eight starts due to Tommy John elbow surgery, and Heineman hit .171 in eight games before undergoing shoulder surgery.

"We had a bit of a rough go with some key personnel guys," Horton says. "That's not an excuse; just a fact."

Oregon will lose some key personnel from its 2014 team, including two pitchers who signed pro contracts -- starter Tommy Thorpe (eighth round, Chicago Cubs) and closer Jake Reed (fifth round, Minnesota). Also departing are senior second baseman Aaron Payne, senior right fielder Tyler Baumgartner, redshirt junior left fielder Kyle Garlick and sophomore pitcher Porter Clayton, who spent two years on a Mormon mission in 2012 and '13.

Garlick graduated this spring and will leave Eugene.

"Kyle's mom has some health-related issues, and he wants to be closer to home" in Chino Hills, Calif., Horton says. "He might transfer to a Division II school and start on a graduate degree in engineering."

Clayton, a 6-4, 215-pound left-hander, was chosen in the 21st round by New York.

"Porter is either going to sign with the Yankees or transfer to another school," Horton says.

Oregon also took a major hit at the top end of a strong recruiting class. The Ducks had five recruits taken in the first eight rounds of the major league draft, and all have signed contracts -- catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson of San Diego (first round, Seattle with a bonus of $4.2 million), outfielder Derek Hill of Elk Grove, Calif. (first round, Detroit), pitcher Brock Burke of Evergreen, Colo. (third round, Tampa Bay), outfielder Casey Soltis of Livermore, Calif. (fifth round, Miami), and pitcher Branden Kelliher of Lake Stevens, Wash. (eight round, Oakland).

The slot-value signing system the major leagues implemented a year ago "has prompted kids to sign more frequently, which is a bit surprising," Horton says. "Only four guys out of top 10 rounds last year went to school, and two of them were in our state (Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler and UO's Krook, who was taken by Miami with the 35th pick in last year's draft).

"You know you're taking a chance on that quality of prospect, but you have to recruit them. If you don't sign those kind of kids, you don't get to coach those kind of kids."

Horton likes the remainder of the 2014 recruiting class, including three players who were drafted -- pitchers David Peterson of Regis, Colo. (28th round, Boston) and Conor Harbor of Western Nevada CC (40th round, Tampa Bay) and catcher Tim Susnara of Mountain View, Calif. (34th round, San Francisco). Peterson is a 6-7, 230-pound left-hander who missed his senior season with a broken leg.

"Those three guys have a chance to help us immediately," Horton says.

Horton is also high on a pair of middle infielders, Danny Patzlaff of Fountain Valley, Calif., and Carson Breshears of Snoqualmie, Wash.; catcher Slade Heggin of Missoula, Mont., and pitchers Jakob Golvfarb of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Jake Corn of Manteca, Calif.

Pitching is annually the strength of Oregon's team, and next season should be no different, though much will depend on the health of Irvin and Krook coming off surgeries.

"Cole will miss fall ball, but he should be ready by January, since that would be 12 months after surgery," Horton says. "Matt didn't have surgery until April, so if we have him at all, it'll just be for the stretch drive."

Heineman should be ready for fall ball in a new dual role as a position player/pitcher.

"We recruited him as a pitcher, and we'll use him on the mound, maybe as our closer," Horton says. "He has great potential there, and we want him to play a position, too. He can play third base, second base or outfield, too."

Pitcher Brando Tessar is applying for a medical redshirt year after signing with Arizona but failing the physical due to arm troubles. Horton guesses his chances are "50-50."

"Brando had a pre-existing condition from high school," Horton says of the right-hander, who was 4-2 with a 4.26 ERA in 14 appearances this season. "His stuff went from electric to not so electric with his health issues through his career here. If he can regain his velocity, he would have a chance to be a weekend starter for us."

Oregon returns five position starters, including its two best hitters in third baseman Mitchell Tolman (.315, 49 RBIs, .438 on-base percentage) and catcher Shaun Chase (.283 and a Pac-12-best 14 home runs).

"Shaun hit well and did OK defensively," Horton says. "He needs to continue to get his body in better shape, but we need his bat in there. He has a chance to be a complete hitter and a real force for us in the middle of the order.

"If you penciled in a 3 hitter for us next season, it would be Mitch. He's had a great career so far. There's nobody we'd rather see in the batter's box than him."

Also back are first baseman A.J. Balta, shortstop Mark Karaviotis and center fielder Nick Catalano.

"We have some flexibility defensively," Horton says. "Tolman can play third or first, and he could take Payne's spot at second. A.J. could move to the outfield. Karaviotis looks like he'll be hard to beat out at shortstop."

The lead outfield candidates would appear to be Balta and returnees Austin Grebeck, Steven Packard and J.B. Bryant.

Irvin should be the No. 1 starter, and right-hander Stephen Nogosek, who worked mostly out of the bullpen this season, is a likely No. 2 guy. Horton might move reliever Garrett Cleavinger to a starting role. Other contenders would be Tessar, left-hander Jordan Spencer and right-hander Trent Paddon, along with freshmen Peterson and Harbor. The closer could be Cleavinger or Heineman.

"One thing I can promise you, (the closer) will be one of our best pitchers," Horton says. "We like to have the back end of our bullpen covered. It's going to be a lot younger group of pitchers next season. Some of incoming guys will have to fulfill those roles."

The Ducks batted .260 last season. Horton thinks that number will be better next season.

"We improved subtly this year," he says. "We were tougher outs deeper into our lineup."

Grebeck and Catalano seem likely to fill the first two spots in the batting order, followed by Tolman and Chase.

"Karaviotis should move up from hitting eighth or ninth this season, and Balta showed flashes of brilliance this year," Horton says. "We think Packard can do on an every-day basis what he did in spots this year. And Heineman is a big one, because he can hit anywhere in the order.

"We like our chances, but talk is talk and actions are actions. We have to go out and do it."

The same is true for Oregon's chances to get to Omaha.

"We're knocking on the door," Horton says. "The state of the union is pretty good. We need a little bit of luck, a little bit of staying healthy for the whole year. Instead of being of the last 64 teams, or 32 or 16, we have to be one of the eight. We were one run away from it in 2012, and a little farther away from it the last 2 years.

"There aren't a lot of teams that can say that. Now we just have to quit talking about it and do it. Once you do it the first time, it's a little easier the second and third time. I'm very proud of where we're at, but there's that feeling of emptiness that we haven't been able to get to the World Series yet."

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