EUGENE, Ore.- Oregon’s three-game series with Loyola Marymount won’t just be a reunion with the Ducks and the familiar confines of PK Park, where the Ducks were 29-8 a year ago, it will also act as a homecoming for three members of head coach George Horton’s baseball family.
Each of the Lions’ coaches have ties back to Horton, whether as both players and assistants, like skipper Jason Gill and assistant Danny Ricabal or just as members of his coaching staff, like assistant Bryant Ward. In fact Gill served as an assistant at Oregon during Horton’s first year at Oregon, and played a prominent role in the recruitment shortstop J.J. Altobelli
Horton likened the experience of facing such close friends as playing a sibling in a sporting event.
“It’s like playing basketball with your brother and trying to kick his rear end and then at the end you shake hands and hug each other,” he said.
Regarding them as “old family members”, Horton says the process of scheduling a game that pinned him against people he has formed such strong ties with wasn’t a difficult one. The Lions and Ducks played one game in 2009-10 season, a 12-3 Oregon-victory in Los Angeles.
“I love to see my old colleagues and players. I love to compare our program to theirs,” Horton said. “Certainly you’re selfish and you hope you come out as the successful team. But I’m not one to want to pull his losses and stress on my friends and people that I love.”
Following a four-game sweep of Hawaii, the Ducks are soaring high, so much so that Horton was unable to categorize a list of possible improvements, saying the Ducks didn’t struggle in any one facet of the game.
“There wasn’t any one area that I’d say ‘heck we really underachieved there.’ Which is a great thing,” he said.
Like in past years, Oregon’s success will be pinned on its defensive effort, an area they asserted themselves in over the weekend, giving up just 11 runs and only committing one error.
A key component of that is the team’s experience, an attribute Horton believes will separate his team from others, especially early in the season. Experience playing together usually lends itself to improved team and unit chemistry, that can be seen best in the squad’s infield.
“The infield has a great chemistry. We played together pretty much all of last year and we’re just confident and we put in the work. We feel like a pretty good group,” Altobelli said.
With so many starters returning from last year’s Pac-12 runner-up team, the Ducks had few gaps to fill entering the 2012-13 campaign. The biggest void was left when Aaron Jones decided to forgo his senior year leaving the starting catching position up-for-grabs.
There to try and seize the opportunity are freshman Josh Graham and sophomore Shaun Chase. The pair split duties during the four-game set, Graham starting Friday and Sunday and Chase the other two games. The result, according to Horton was better than expected.
“I made it known…that catching is probably our area of development that we’ll be watching very closely. Between Chase and Graham, we split it up almost evenly and they were spectacular.
“They managed the game, worked with the pitchers, worked with me, and handled the running game. They performed beyond our expectations, which was a big plus for us,” Horton said.
Also stepping up into an open role was freshman Garrett Cleavinger, who filled the bridge or set-up spot that Tommy Thorpe left when he made the shift to the starting rotation. Cleavinger pitched twice, putting just one batter on base in one and two-thirds innings of work.
Pitcher Jeff Gold should be available for action this weekend, Horton says, describing the injury as a “bruise”. Gold started Monday’s game and took a 3-1 lead into the fifth inning before taking a line drive to the ankle.
“He got hit very hard and he’s in a lot of pain,” Horton said. “As soon as he can run, he’ll be able to pitch.”
For his efforts in the opening series, first baseman Ryon Healy was awarded Pac-12 player of the week honors. Healy was 8-for-15 with four RBIs and four extra base hits.
“It’s a big honor. But the team made it possible for anyone to be successful. We all played great together and that’s what made us win four games in Hawaii,” he said of the honor.
The Ducks and Lions start their three-game series Friday with a 6 p.m. first pitch at PK Park. They follow that with a 2 p.m. and noon start on Saturday and Sunday.