by Rob Moseley
Oregon's 20-4 win over Ohio State on Sunday was significant in some obvious ways: The Ducks secured a series victory over the Buckeyes, got hitting from up and down the lineup and saw Jeff Gold rise to the challenge of a weekend start.
There were subtle but no less notable takeaways, too. One occurred early in the afternoon, when Ohio State's Jacob Bosiokovic stepped to the plate.
Bosiokovic, who swings from the right side of the plate, is a dead pull hitter. The scouting report on him required Oregon's shortstop to move a few steps into the hole between second and third. The job of ensuring the shortstop that day, freshman Mark Karaviotis, did so was handled by UO infield coach Jay Uhlman.
"I write down what happened just before, I look up — and he's standing in the right place," Uhlman said.
Such has been the development of Oregon's young defense, which gets its next test in the Pac-12 opening series against USC beginning Friday at PK Park. The Ducks are primarily starting three freshmen at the critical "up-the-middle" spots defensively — catcher, shortstop and center field — and the newcomers are handling themselves beyond their years.
The youth up the middle is noteworthy given the premium Oregon coach George Horton places on defense. He built the program to win tight, low-scoring games thanks to pitching, defense and timely hitting. The Ducks have finished atop the Pac-12 in fielding percentage each of the last three seasons, including a high of .981 last spring.
This year, the UO fielding percentage is .971 through a 12-4 start. But among the freshmen up the middle, Austin Grebeck has been flawless on 19 chances in center, Karaviotis has a modest two errors and catcher Jack Kruger is fielding his position at a .989 rate.
"I think we're all getting used to playing with each other," said Kruger, who has two passed balls and has cut down four of six stolen-base attempts. "Even in fall, you spend a lot of time with these guys, but it's hard to get that same connection as during a game. Now that we're playing games, it's all starting to come together, which is really cool."
Karaviotis had the biggest shoes to fill, replacing the slick-fielding J.J. Altobelli at short. Grebeck and Kruger play positions where the Ducks returned their primary starters from late last season.
Their early impact in 2014 hasn't been a surprise to the UO coaching staff.
"When you recruit high-level athletes to a Pac-12 program, when they come in they want to take somebody's job," Uhlman said. "Just like whoever comes in next year is going to want to take these guys' jobs. I think we always knew that guys could do it."
Karaviotis has become something of a pet project for Uhlman, who is trying to mold the former all-state pick from Hawaii into an elite defensive player in college. Uhlman also has an unofficial assistant on the field — senior second baseman Aaron Payne, a three-year starter who is perfect on his 53 fielding chances this season.
"He's doing a great job using his experience and everything he knows to give as much knowledge as he can to the younger guys, to make them more comfortable," said Gold, who earned another start this Sunday against USC.
Karaviotis recognizes the high bar Altobelli set the last few years at shortstop for the Ducks. Uhlman wanted to see "a sense of urgency" from the freshman given that responsibility, and small developments like Karaviotis' positioning for Bosiokovic's at-bat Sunday are a good start.
Karaviotis had a throwing error later in the game, but Uhlman also saw something to like from the play — the way Karaviotis' first step toward the middle of the diamond put him in the right spot to field the ball, before the throw got away.
"He wants to work; he wants to learn," Uhlman said. "He's able to take constructive criticism, and he's able to use it to get better. You see that every time he's out there — he makes more plays."
Karaviotis, who has started seven of 14 games, said he doesn't mind the intense scrutiny of his play from Uhlman.
"It's definitely constructive criticism," he said. "I enjoy when he's on me, because he makes me tougher and pushes me to try harder."
Trying hard has never an issue for Grebeck, the son of 12-year major leaguer Craig Grebeck. Austin hit .407 as a high school senior and patrols a wide swath of the outfield, despite measuring 5-foot-8 and 152 pounds.
"I've never seen anybody run like Austin," Kruger said. "It's really fun to watch."
"I play the game hard — that's the only way I know," said Grebeck, who is hitting .275 and has made 10 starts. "That's how I grew up. I'm not the biggest guy, so I have to go out and play like a big guy."
Like Karaviotis, Grebeck has an assistant coach setting his positioning based on scouting reports, in this case Brett Hambright. And like Karaviotis, Grebeck requires coaches to yell from the dugout and adjust his positioning less and less as the season progresses.
"When I first got here it was like, 'Austin, Austin!' — having to get my attention to go over here or there," Grebeck said. "In high school I positioned myself, but more and more now I'm learning where to go, how we're going to pitch guys, and before a guy even gets up I'm like, 'OK, he wants me here.'"
Kruger was the first of the freshmen to start, in Oregon's season opener, and Grebeck was in the lineup the next day (Karaviotis made his first start in game three at Hawaii). Kruger was called upon again two days later to handle electric freshman lefty Matt Krook, whose stuff is so nasty he threw seven wild pitches that day — wild pitches, not passed balls.
"He catches the dirtiest guys," Karaviotis said, admiring Kruger's nimble feet blocking the plate. "He's the guy they can throw behind the plate and trust with everything they've got."
The Ducks have yet another freshman starter, outfielder/first baseman A.J. Balta. A converted second baseman, Balta, who has seven starts in left field, has also filled in at first so that Mitchell Tolman could replace the injured Scott Heineman at third; Balta has just one error, and justified the shoehorning of his bat into the lineup with a grand slam Sunday against the Buckeyes.
"Things are coming along OK," said Balta, who may be headed back to the outfield full time with Heineman potentially back this weekend against the Trojans. "I'm learning the plays, learning the position. I think it's going well."
The same could be said for the freshmen up the middle of the UO defense, who continue to make steady progress.
"The best way to put it is, I've always played this game, since I was a kid," Kruger said. "It's played at a different speed (in college), played with different people, in a park I've never played in before — but it's still the game of baseball.
"And so, I think there was a little bit of an adjustment for all of us coming in here. But now that we've gotten our feet wet, it's back to the game of baseball that we all know."