Upstart Ducks on verge of clinching Pac-12 baseball title

Upstart Ducks on verge of  clinching Pac-12 baseball title

Credit: goducks.com

Upstart Ducks on verge of clinching Pac-12 baseball title

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by Anne E. Peterson/AP Sports Writer

kgw.com

Posted on May 25, 2012 at 10:25 AM

EUGENE -- Oregon baseball coach George Horton has his players in the weight room at 6:20 every morning. He knows it's a brutal hour for college students and usually there are stragglers.

But not this season. Only one player has ever reported late. That, Horton says, is what this season's Ducks are all about.

"In all my years of coaching, that's never happened before," he said. "I think it shows this team's dedication."

Oregon, which revived its baseball program just four seasons ago, leads the Pac-12 with a school-record 42 wins. Riding a nine-game winning streak, the Ducks could clinch the conference title when they visit rival Oregon State for a three-game series to wrap up the regular season.

If everything falls into place, the Ducks would be awarded one of the eight national seeds and host an NCAA tournament regional at PK Park next week.

Not bad for a team that was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 by the league's coaches.

Oregon came into the season with 18 newcomers. The team lost four pitchers, including left-handed ace Tyler Anderson, to the MLB draft last year. Second baseman Danny Pulfer and shortstop KC Serna also decided to leave the program for the draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Then starting pitcher Christian Jones had preseason Tommy John surgery.

But Oregon persevered. Horton said while players stepped up capably to fill roles they hadn't before, the Ducks' success this season has as much to do with the intangibles, like sheer determination.

"It's been a phenomenal run, because of a lot of different things, and surprises you don't expect as a coach," Horton said. "The No. 1 thing, I think, is that the attitude of this team is something special."

Horton took on the team as a startup in 2008, when Oregon reinstated baseball after a 28-year absence. He had a proven track record, having led Cal State Fullerton to the 2004 College World Series title.

Predictably the first season in 2009 was rocky, with Oregon finishing 14-42. But in 2010 they caught on, finishing 40-24 and going to the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

After going 33-26-1 last year, then losing several key players, it's no wonder the coaches had the Ducks pegged to finish in the bottom half of the conference.

The key this season, as Horton sees it, is the close games. The Ducks were 5-12 in one-run games last year. This year they're 15-5.

"We've been very fortunate, up to this point, that we've had a great deal of success in the type of game that makes or breaks a season: The one-run game, the two-run game, the close game," he said. "We've had the ability to hold on late, to get wins, even if it's not in perfect fashion."

Heading into the last weekend of the regular season, the Ducks are ranked No. 5 by Baseball America. They've won 15 out of their last 16 games.

The Ducks and the Beavers have split the season series 1-1 so far this year. Last season, Oregon State was poised to clinch the Pac-12 title but dropped three straight games to the Ducks at PK Park and finished second in the rankings to UCLA.

The Beavers are 35-18 and look to be one of six conference teams to go to the postseason.

Currently, Oregon is a game up on Arizona and two games in front of Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA in the Pac-12 standings. Given the attitude and work ethic of his team, Horton isn't concerned about how his team will fare as the season winds down.

"I've suggested how we should play these games and how we should go about it, and how we should go about dealing with the pressure," he said. "All of the sudden now it comes back to the expectation part of it. It's kind of like playing the last few innings of a close game. Are you playing to win or are you playing not to fail? Are you looking at you press clippings and worrying about dropping out of first place, or are you going for it?"

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