By Rob Moseley
Less than a week removed from Oregon’s NCAA Regional final loss at Vanderbilt, UO baseball coach George Horton was of two minds in looking back on the 2014 season.
On the one hand, Horton was hired with the intention – his intention, and the program’s intention – to make the Ducks a regular College World Series participant. Now six years into the program’s rebirth, Oregon has yet to play in Omaha, and that’s a source of frustration.
“It’s not words, I think it’s something we can achieve here,” Horton said. “The fact we have not done that in our six years is disappointing to me.”
And yet there were reasons to think 2014 wasn’t going to be the season the Ducks broke through and reached Omaha.
Sophomore Cole Irvin, the team’s projected Friday night starter, didn’t throw a pitch this spring after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Electric freshman Matt Krook pitched well enough in eight starts to earn freshman all-American honors from Louisville Slugger, but he too eventually underwent Tommy John surgery.
“We talk about ‘next Duck up,’ but the reality is that we lost two of the best pitchers in America, who most likely would have been our Friday and Saturday guys,” Horton said. “I think that put a little bit of a strain on our pitchers, our young pitchers, and affected us down the stretch.”
The Ducks also played most of the season without leadoff hitter and third baseman Scott Heineman due to a shoulder injury. Horton is aware that one could make the argument – the very reasonable argument – that all those injuries were too much for the Ducks to overcome.
A Super Regional appearance this weekend would have been just the second of Oregon’s new era of college baseball. All those injuries were significant hurdles to accomplishing that goal. Still, that remained the goal, for Horton and his program.
“We’re still kind of hurting a little bit,” Horton said. “We expected to be alive at this point.”
What the Ducks did achieve was a 44-20 campaign, and an 18-12 conference record that resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12. Oregon struggled against ranked competition, going 2-12, although one of the wins was an upset of No. 1 Oregon State in a midweek game during the final week of the regular season.
With Irvin and Krook sidelined, Tommy Thorpe was the Friday starter all season, and responded with a brilliant spring, going 11-4 with a 2.14 ERA. Thorpe won at UCLA and then beat Cal with a complete game at PK Park in his final two regular-season starts, then pitched Oregon past Clemson to open NCAA Regionals.
Senior Jeff Gold was the other anchor of the pitching staff, going 10-3 with a 3.17 ERA and just eight walks in 99 1/3 innings. He entered the year projected as a midweek starter, but held his own in the weekend rotation.
The third slot in the weekend rotation was in flux much of the year. Before Krook’s injury, it took a few weeks before Gold nailed down the job. After Gold moved up to Saturday, more options were tried, with senior Brando Tessar providing the most stability.
The best start of the year by any of the other options might have come in the season-ending loss to Vanderbilt. Freshman Stephen Nogosek, making just his second start in 17 appearances, allowed one run on four hits in seven innings, leaving with a 2-1 lead that the bullpen surrendered.
Nogosek was one of a number of UO freshmen to play key roles. Fellow pitcher Trent Paddon made three starts among his 21 appearances and finished with a 3.38 ERA. Mark Karaviotis started 51 games at shortstop, hitting .254 with a .958 fielding percentage, A.J. Balta started 56 games primarily at first base as the Ducks compensated for Heineman’s absence, and outfielder Austin Grebek was a standout late-inning defensive replacement besides being a 34-game starter.
“That was a class that came in with high credentials, but there was also some production there,” Horton said. “They had a lot to do with us winning 44 games.”
Karaviotis and Balta were regulars in a UO lineup led by the steady play of corner infielder Mitchell Tolman, who hit .315, and the breakout season for catcher Shaun Chase, who led the Pac-12 with 14 home runs. Senior second baseman Aaron Payne wrapped up a stellar career by hitting .255 and serving as the anchor for an otherwise very young infield, and Tyler Baumgartner came out at the end of a season of peaks and valleys with a .286 average.
The Oregon bullpen featured converted starter Jake Reed, a revelation in his first season as the Ducks’ closer. Reed saved 13 games in 34 appearances, with a 1.95 ERA.
Eighth-inning lefty Garrett Cleavinger battled inconsistency, finishing with a 3.34 ERA but also 49 strikeouts, most among UO relievers.
Reed was a fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins on Friday, and the Ducks had several of their recruits selected early in the draft as well. Players have until July 19 to sign with professional teams or opt to enroll in college.
But Oregon’s most valuable new additions in 2015 figure to be the injured veterans from this past spring. Irvin should be able to throw off a mound in the fall, and Krook could be back from his elbow surgery in time to join the Ducks’ stretch run next season.
In the meantime, Horton said the coaching staff will analyze things like their summer workload, the throwing pitchers do in the fall and their strength and conditioning to see if anything can be done to limit the instance of future elbow injuries for UO pitchers.
“We’ll look at everything and anything that might decrease the chances it could happen to one of our guys,” Horton said.