From The Dugout: Danny Pulfer's Breakout Season
May 28, 2011
student and journalism major Kris Anderson spoke with junior Danny Pulfer about his time as a Duck.
Kris will continue to provide features on the Oregon baseball team throughout the remainder of the 2011 season.
Danny Pulfer's Breakout Season
Kris Anderson, UO Journalism Student
Danny Pulfer is as much a team spokesman, as he is a baseball player. Win, lose or draw, he will routinely find himself in front of a group of reporters after a game.
Listed at 5-foot-10—probably in cleats—Pulfer is one of the few athletes that stands at or below the eye level of most reporters.
Atop his flat bill cap are a pair of yellow and black Nike sunglasses. Day or night, he doesn’t step onto a baseball field without them. With a black arm band positioned just below his left elbow and a cross on a silver chain draped around his neck, the Oregon second baseman doesn’t resort to typical postgame clichés.
After being swept by the UCLA Bruins, Pulfer explained it like this: “Pretty sure we established that we’re soft a couple weeks ago. Still the same thing. Some guys are focused, some guys aren’t. I’m just fed up with it.”
After taking two out of three from the Stanford Cardinal to keep the Ducks postseason hopes alive, Pulfer explained it like this: "I think we finally got guys believing that we’re not out of this yet.”
When Pulfer talks, one can’t help but think that when his playing days are over, his coaching days might begin.
While he is emotional and outspoken, Pulfer’s energy is visible and infectious.
He walks to the plate with swagger, and as he does, players, coaches, fans, and even people in line at the concession stands wave their arms as his walk-up song, “Put Your Hands Up In The Air,” by Danzel, plays throughout PK Park. You could only get away with that if you are hitting .352.
How’s he done it? Don’t ask him
Pulfer started the year as a bottom of the order hitter, but has been “pulfer-izing” the ball consistently since March. His performance has propelled himself to the roll of the Ducks leadoff hitter, while his confidence has grown with each passing series.
Following a series in mid-May between Oregon and Stanford, Pulfer added an accolade to his yearlong destruction of Pac-10 pitching. He finished the week with a .565 batting average, .738 slugging percentage and recorded five-consecutive games with multiple hits. It earned him the Pac-10 Player of the Week honor.
“He got those big hits that we were unable to get early in the year,” said infielder Dylan Gavin. “Just getting those big hits builds confidence for the rest of the team.”
More honors are sure to follow, as 2011 has been a year that not even Pulfer can explain. In the Pac-10, Pulfer ranks fifth in batting average (.352), fifth in on-base percentage (.424), second in hits (76), fourth in doubles (15), and fourth in total bases (101).
“I have no idea how I’m doing it to be honest,” the Cypress, Calif native says.
His own preseason pipe dreams wouldn’t have been able to predict a season like this one. But this has been a story of two different seasons for Danny Pulfer.
Early season slump
The 2011 college baseball season might as well have come with a disclaimer. This would be the first year played with the NCAA’s new regulations on bats. To help insure the safety of players, the new bats would better resemble wood bats. The timeless “ping” of the aluminum was gone—and so was college baseball’s characteristic offensive onslaught.
Coming off a sophomore year where he hit .300 and raised his batting average 60 points from his freshman year, Pulfer wasn’t going to expect a season like 2010. He, like most college hitters, believed this would be the year of the pitcher—and that his numbers would be the casualty. So, Pulfer set his expectations for the year accordingly.
“Coming into the season, I thought for sure with the new bats, I was going to have to work very hard offensively,” Pulfer said. “My goal was to hit .275. Maybe 10 doubles, maybe a home run if I could get one with the wind blowing.”
As the year began to unfold, it seemed like Pulfer would have a better chance of convincing the NCAA to reinstate the old bats than reaching his early season goals. Pulfer had a .220 batting average through the first 13 games of the season. He was struggling. The Ducks were struggling. And it was starting to become reminiscent of Pulfer’s freshman year.
As an underclassman
Being a native of Southern California, Pulfer dreamt of playing his college ball at Cal State Fullerton. While he was never recruited by Fullerton, he was recruited by George Horton, who coached at Fullerton for 17 seasons.
Horton came to Eugene to help the development of an Oregon program at the Division One level for the first time in 28 years.
Landing Pulfer was an impressive score for the Ducks. Not only was he a four-year varsity captain in high school, but he was also considered one of the best middle infielders on the west coast.
“There’s only a few guys in the country that have the resume to say, ‘I played baseball for George Horton,’” Pulfer said. “To get recruited here for him, that was an honor. I couldn’t turn that down.”
Pulfer played shortstop in high school and believed that’s where he would play as a Duck. Instead, he was juggled between third base and second base, and that made for a rough season. The Ducks finished their inaugural season on a 13-game losing streak, and finished the year with a record of 14-42. Pulfer hit .240 with a .257 slugging percentage and made 12 errors on the year.
“Coming here my freshman year, no one knew what to expect,” Pulfer said. “Everyone was the big dog where they came from. Everyone was trying to be the guy.”
“(I was) angry because I wasn’t playing shortstop. I was recruited as a shortstop, and was told I was going to play shortstop. I probably never let that go all season. It probably crept in offensively.”
At shortstop was fellow freshman KC Serna.
Serna was recruited out of Ventura, Calif., but the two never developed a bond.
“We haven’t been the best of friends throughout this whole process,” Serna said. “…We just have really different personalities and it was really hard for us to mesh, click and get along.”
As freshmen, the season was a constant competition. For Pulfer, a mistake by Serna was another reason why Pulfer should be the shortstop. For Serna, a mistake by Pulfer was another reason why Serna should be the shortstop. It was the coveted position, and one player’s failure was another player’s gain.
“A lot of it was on me,” Pulfer said. “I just remember last year, KC didn’t have the greatest year defensively, and I remember talking to Jay Uhlman. ‘Why am I not getting my shot at shortstop?’ And he kept telling me, ‘hey, you got to worry about yourself.’ And he was right. When I stopped worrying about myself and I started being on KC’s side, he started being on my side.
“Toward the end of the year we were competing, but it wasn’t competing as a fact that I was hoping he was going to fail and he was hoping I was going to fail. We still have that head butting, but all brothers are going to have that.”
Call it a sibling rivalry. Call it a functioning relationship. But it wasn’t a middle infielder relationship like any that Serna has experienced.
“Usually, middle infielders are best friends, and that was my biggest thing—not being best friends with my partner,” Serna said. “I’ve talked to coaches about it, but I’ve found ways just to get over it.
“I’m proud of his success, and don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that he’s done well for the team. But I’m just a little sad that my second baseman isn’t my best friend.”
March 11, 2011
Oregon started the 2011 season in rather average fashion during what was supposed to be an above average year. With a 5-7 record, the Ducks looked to gain some air beneath their wings as they swept visiting Brigham Young University. It was good to be home.
But, for Pulfer, the series didn’t leave him in a celebratory mood. Instead, the series marked a surfacing of issues on and off the field, and left Pulfer uncertain of his status as the Ducks second baseman.
As a freshman, Pulfer started each of the 55 games he played in. As a sophomore, he started in every game for the Ducks. On March 11, Pulfer was benched, meaning he would miss his first home game in his three year Oregon career.
“I was really upset at myself,” Pulfer said with crossed arms as he leaned against the dugout railing. “That was a big statistic for me. Just the fact that I could play everyday was a big stat that I was proud of myself for.
“Being taken out of the lineup that early in the season for things like not hustling or showing emotion; things that I can control. That isn’t me. So coach Horton talked to me about that, and I made a point to never let that happen again.”
The next day, Pulfer arrived at the park two hours before he was suppose to report. Admittedly, it was done less for his benefit and more for Horton’s. Back in the starting lineup for the final game of the series, Pulfer failed to get a hit. His woes were festering, and he decided to make a call to Uhlman—now an assistant coach for the Kansas Jayhawks.
“I had to take a snap back to reality,” Pulfer said. “I called him… and was like, ‘hey man, I keep struggling.’ And he said, ‘didn’t you guys sweep?’ And I said, ‘yeah.’ And he said, ‘since when are you focused on yourself?’
“One thing he told me is that as soon as you stop playing for yourself, as soon as you stop playing for the stats, as soon as you start playing for a season, and you start playing for your teammates, and you start playing just to win, your stats are going to skyrocket and you won’t even know it.”
In the first game since that conversation, Pulfer went 2-for-4 with a triple against the University of San Diego—he went 5-for-8 in the series. The series would also be the start of his reaching base safely streak that ended at 31 consecutive games. Since the first game of that San Diego series, Pulfer has a .385 batting average.
“I just kept rolling from there,” Pulfer said about his season changing triple. “It only takes something like that to get out of a slump and into something special. Luckily enough I got that hit and have just been rolling with it.
But it is unfair to coin that triple as season changing—in reality, it was probably life changing.
2011 MLB Draft
Before this season, the names of Tyler Anderson, Scott McGough and Madison Boer were the probable Ducks to be drafted in 2011. But Pulfer’s junior year surge came at the right time, as he will be eligible for the draft in June. The numbers that he’s been able to put up will likely have him selected to be a member of this year’s draft class.
“It will be a dream come true for me if that happens,” Pulfer said. “Everyone comes here and is like, ‘I’m going to get drafted. I’m going to get drafted.’ My mind set was, ‘I’m going to be the highest draft pick out of Oregon.’
“Obviously, that’s probably not going to be true because of Tyler, Scott and Madison. But to be on a team where we have so many high prospects, that’s just exciting.”
Pulfer is one of three Ducks that stands below 6 feet. He won’t pass the initial eye-test of many scouts, but he continues to prove that baseball isn’t just a tall man’s game.
“I’ve always been told I’m too small,” Pulfer said with a laugh. “There’s always something that I’m not going to be good enough to play this game. Whether I make it to the major leagues or not, then okay, but I know I’m going to give it my best shot, and give everything I have.”
Pulfer has decided that he will forego his senior year and turn pro should he be drafted this year.
“This year’s the year to go,” he said. “I think I’ve taken as much from coach Horton as I can take. He’s taught me as much about baseball as anyone in my life has in just three years. I think I’m ready.”
Since 2009, Oregon has consistently wrangled up some of the best recruiting classes in the country. For all the personal reasons there are to make that decision, Pulfer says that it’s time for other guys to have their chance.
“We’re pretty deep in freshmen,” Pulfer said. “If I came back it would be for experience reasons and teaching younger guys. I think it’s only fair to guys like Aaron Payne, egging to get in the lineup; guys like Dylan Gavin. I think it would be unfair if I came back.”
Oregon’s final series of the season against the Oregon State Beavers could be Pulfer’s final appearance at PK Park. Pulfer’s departure is marking the end of the first group of Ducks in the new era of Oregon baseball. In 2012, new faces and new personalities will characterize the team.
Pulfer is part of a group that will always be associated with the restoration of Oregon baseball.
For that, Danny Pulfer deserves a hands-in-the-air ovation in his final series.