EUGENE, Ore- The Oregon baseball team opens the 2013 season with a four-game series in Honolulu versus Hawaii. Honolulu has become a second-home of sorts for the Ducks, who’ve made trips to the Islands in each of the last four years, including season-opening series the last three.
In last year’s run to the NCAA Super Regional, the Ducks dropped their first game of the season to the Warriors before rattling off ten straight wins, garnering national attention and collecting confidence they maintained throughout.
This year, head coach George Horton hopes the series lends the same self-assurance to his team, as they hope to meet loftier goals after each of the major polls placed the Ducks in the top-15 nationally.
But regardless of the media expectations or those set amongst themselves, what the opening series provides is real-game experience against opponents not decked out in green and yellow.
“It’s kind of a refreshing thing to start the season, it will be all of us against a team in a different color, where it’s kind of been the pitchers versus the catchers and the battle there,” Horton said.
While Les Murakami Stadium will be a familiar venue for the team’s veterans, that won’t stop the fans from badgering and jeering the Ducks. A year ago, junior pitcher Christian Jones’ father almost got into a fight with a Hawaii fan, after things got heated.
“I know last year, my dad almost got into a fight with one of them [Hawaii fan]. My dad would’ve gotten whooped,” he said.
“If we’re able to handle that kind of atmosphere, I think it’ll be a good tone for the rest of the season,” senior shortstop J.J. Altobelli said.
Jones, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, figures to make his first mound appearance in over a year over the weekend, but won’t make it as a starter. The coaches plan to use Jones in long relief role in one of the Ducks’ games, putting a three-inning, 60 pitch count cap on his outing.
“Anxious would probably be the word [to describe emotion entering this weekend], exciting, nervous, a little bit of wonder there, that’s probably how I’d describe what I’m feeling right now,” Jones said
Horton has selected Jake Reed, Tommy Thorpe, Cole Irvin and Jeff Gold as the opening weekend starters. Irvin’s start, which is set for Sunday, will be the first collegiate start for the freshman from Yorba Linda, Calif.
Outside of the starting rotation, the most evident position battle will be to fill the void at catcher Aaron Jones left when he entered the MLB Draft. Freshman Josh Graham has the leg up on Shaun Chase entering play this weekend, and will start Friday’s game. Depending on Graham’s effort Thursday and Friday, Chase might see action in the final two games of the series, Horton said.
“Josh is certainly not hitting on all cylinders, as you would expect a freshman playing that high volume position, where there are a lot of things to know in our system,” Horton said. “Hopefully, Josh will continue to get more comfortable with all of the system sorts of things. He’s playing awfully well physical, it’s just mental things that pop up every now and then.”
Last year’s opening day starting third baseman Scott Heineman was also under consideration at catcher, but was beat out by Graham and Chase and has since been moved to center field, where Horton says he’s shown he can handle the position defensively and has seen a revived bat.
Heineman isn’t alone in his offensive output, as Jones calls the hitters “phenomenal” and Altobelli points out that “a lot of people in our offense have been swinging the bat really well as of late.” Altobelli singled out Ryon Healy, Ryan Hambright and Brett Thomas in particular.
The Ducks and Warriors start their four-game series Friday at 8:35 p.m., followed by an 8:05 first pitch Saturday and 3:05 starts on both Sunday and Monday. None of the games will be televised, but local radio 1320 AM will carry all four.