By Rob Moseley
There were times last spring, against Vanderbilt’s tough left-handed pitching, or in the Oregon baseball team’s four one-run losses, when the Ducks could only wonder how much the big right-handed bat of injured outfielder Kyle Garlick might have helped.
Since the fall, Garlick and his teammates have gotten a pretty good indication.
“I’m seeing the ball well, hitting the ball well, having good at-bats,” said Garlick, a redshirt junior who took a medical hardship in 2013 following a wrist injury that limited him to 10 games and 31 at-bats. “It feels great.”
No. 11 Oregon began official practices last week, and will open the season Feb. 14 at Hawaii. Among the biggest storylines in the early going will be how well the Ducks replace slugger Ryon Healy, who led them in batting average (.333), on-base average (.408) and slugging (.566) last season.
Junior Scott Heineman will be a key piece, while lefties Mitchell Tolman and Tyler Baumgartner could take big steps in their second year at Oregon. But the best candidate to replace Healy’s production might just be Garlick, a 6-foot, 209-pound native of Chino Hills, Calif.
“He gives you that presence in the middle of the order that we lost with the likes of Ryon Healy,” UO coach George Horton said. “Other teams know when those guys are coming up. For his sake I hope he has a big year, and for our sake I hope he has a big year.”
Overcoming injury is nothing new to Garlick, who missed 15 games with a broken hand in 2011 before hitting .250 with two homers in 24 starts as a freshman. He played full-time as a sophomore in 2012, hitting .287 with six homers and an .852 OPS – second on the team, and 55 points higher than Healy.
But while Garlick was injured in 2013, Healy took the next step in his progression, developing into one of the Pac-12’s most feared hitters.
“Ryon wanted to be in that batter’s box with the game on the line,” Horton said. “Only a select few really ever get to that, where it’s 100 percent true – ‘Give me this at-bat, I’ll win the game for you.’ I think Kyle has that potential; now, whether he believes it is a whole ‘nother issue.”
Heineman thinks Garlick could be ready, carrying a chip on his shoulder into this season after a frustrating 2013.
Garlick brings a mix of confidence and realism into his second go-round as a junior. He has every intention of improving on his robust numbers from the 2012 season, but he was careful about making direct comparisons between his anticipated production and what the Ducks lost from Healy.
“We’re looking for that out of everybody – instead of one Healy, I’d like to see four or five Healys, in a perfect world,” Garlick said. “Really, it’s going to take the whole team to do that.”
Garlick was off to a slow start a year ago before his injury, hitting .097 with three extra-base hits and four RBIs before being sidelined for the remainder of the season. He skipped summer ball as well, and only started swinging 100 percent in July.
In the weight room, Garlick kept up his lower-body workouts after the wrist injury, and he’s been able to do enough since recovering that his arms and shoulders are notably thicker this winter. Since arriving back in Eugene for the fall, Garlick has participated in every scrimmage, and said he had “the best fall I’ve had in the four years I’ve been here.”
“Sitting out 50 games was tough,” he said. “It was awesome to watch the guys have some success, but I wanted to be a part of it. So, it’s nice to be in the mix and actually feel healthy now.”
Like a lot of guys who miss extended time with injury, Garlick said he was able to observe some things in the dugout that will help him going forward. Somewhat surprisingly, they don’t have anything to do with his play on the field, but rather his demeanor off of it.
“Seeing how guys reacted to making errors and having bad at-bats, I saw how people reacted well to things and how people reacted bad to things,” he said. “I could get a better feel for how to handle those situations. Baseball is so much more mental than people think.”
With an improved mentality to augment his prodigious physical ability, perhaps Garlick can indeed develop into the kind of big, clutch bat Healy was a year ago. He insists, however, that the only number he’ll be concerned about at the end of this season is the Ducks’ victory total.
“The bottom line is, I want wins – I want to get back to being a national seed, to host the Regional and Super Regionals, and get to Omaha,” Garlick said. “Everybody wants to do well personally, and I’ve set goals for myself, and the biggest goal is to get to Omaha.”
If the Ducks do get to the College World Series, no doubt Garlick will have played a key role.