Better understanding fueling Oregon’s rise

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Having a strong understanding between coaches and players can lead to much success. Not having those attributes can lead to failure, too.

Just ask Oregon coach George Horton.

The Ducks are in the midst of an impressive campaign, as they possess a 21-11 record in the heart of Pac-10 play. But for Horton and his program, winning and feeling good are something new.

The Ducks had their first campaign since the 1980s last season. And as you might imagine, there were plenty of obstacles, some too large to overcome.

Horton, who was used to winning at a high level at Cal State Fullerton, had to deal with the idea that he likely wasn’t going to win in his first season. He also had to teach his styles to his players for the first time. At Fullerton, the Titan way of doing things was in every player that entered the program.

That wasn’t the case at Oregon last season.

Photo Oregon coach George Horton is more than pleased with his club’s accomplishments so far this season.
(Oregon)

“I think last season, Coach Horton had a unique group, and he wasn’t real sure how to get on us. If he would get vocal and yell, some guys on the team would go into a shell. Then he would be a little too nice,” Oregon pitcher Tyler Anderson said. “This year, it doesn’t really matter to anyone if someone goes into a shell. They’re going to let us know when we’re not doing things right.

“Starting in the fall, he really got on us. He is just trying to challenge us. As a result, I think the team has responded in a big way so far this season.”

The difference between Horton’s first team and this year’s club is vast.

The Ducks finished last season with just 14 wins. But most disappointing was the fact the offense ended the campaign with just a .227 batting average. The pitching staff outside of Erik Stavert also had issues, finishing the season with a 5.07 ERA.

This year’s club has provided a different snapshot.

Oregon still doesn’t have a great hitting team, but Horton is confident the lineup will have more power once Stephen Kaupang is able to return to the lineup full-time. The Ducks, though, have a .276 batting average, which is 49 points higher than where they finished last season.

“I’m a little surprised at how well we are doing this season, but I also thought we were good at times last season, too. We just couldn’t put anything together,” said Oregon catcher Eddie Rodriguez, who’s hitting .343 with 24 RBIs. “This year, though, it’s kind of like, ‘Holy cow, we’re getting it done.’ It’s awesome. It’s definitely a much better feeling.”

Though the offense has made some strides, the pitching staff clearly has progressed the most, evolving into one of the nation’s best staffs this season.

Oregon’s 2.93 ERA ranks third nationally behind UCLA and Texas but ahead of rival Oregon State and others such as Vanderbilt, Arizona State, Coastal Carolina and TCU.

The Ducks have just two pitchers with ERAs worse than 3.80 so far this season. Starting pitchers Tyler Anderson, Alex Keudell and Justin LaTempa have been fabulous. Anderson has a 2.16 ERA in 50 innings, Keudell has a 3.40 ERA in 50 1/3 innings and LaTempa has a 3.44 ERA in 36 2/3 innings.

Scott McGough, who has started two games this season but now is a reliever, has recorded three saves in nine appearances and has a 2.17 ERA in 29 innings.

There’s no question where this staff is in Horton’s eyes.

“We absolutely have an Omaha type of pitching staff. I’m not even sure I’ve ever been around a staff this deep in quality pitchers,” Horton said. “We had some staffs at Fullerton that were six or seven pitchers deep. But right now I have nine or ten pitchers deep. I think this staff would be even more spectacular to more people if it were with an offensive lineup that was outstanding like some of my past Fullerton clubs.”

Oregon’s pitching staff will determine its fate the rest of the season. The offense, though, must at least hold its end of the bargain at the current clip or better.

The Ducks are in postseason contention and feel they have some unfinished business. Even with a solid record and a fantastic RPI of 33, the Ducks are 4-5 in Pac-10 play with a tough series against top-ranked UCLA coming up this weekend.

Chances are good that Oregon will end the season in an NCAA regional. But if not, the Ducks already have accomplished more than anyone, including Horton, could’ve imagined.

Horton thought before the season that his team would win 20 to 25 games. Now 35 to 40 wins aren’t out of the realm of possibility.

It all started with a better understanding.


RED HOT

Connecticut – The Huskies have been fantastic since the road series loss to Louisville a few weeks ago. They have won two straight series over West Virginia and Villanova, and should continue their winning ways at Georgetown. The Huskies are establishing themselves as a for-sure regional club.

Coastal Carolina – The series loss to San Diego a couple of weekends ago apparently was an eye opener for the Chanticleers. They have won 10 straight games. That includes solid RPI wins over Clemson, The Citadel and North Carolina. Will the Chants be a national seed when it’s all said and done?

Texas – There may not be a hotter team in the land than the Longhorns. Texas is coming off two straight Big 12 series sweeps over Oklahoma and Kansas. UT has won nine straight after taking care of Texas State in midweek action. The Longhorns hope to keep their streak going against rival Texas A&M.

California – The Pac-10 has several surprise teams, but only Oregon has been more surprising than California. The Golden Bears have won eight straight and are 8-2 in their last 10. The Bears have earned series sweeps over Arizona and USC the past two weekends. Give coach Dave Esquer a tip of the cap for a great coaching job this season.

Virginia Military – Perhaps the Keydets are for real after all. After taking care of Virginia in a midweek affair, they now have an overall record of 29-5. The Keydets now have won nine straight and are competing with Coastal Carolina for the Big South regular season crown.

Arkansas – The Razorbacks really want to be a national seed. They have upgraded their level of play in recent weeks. In addition to winning SEC series against Kentucky and Mississippi State, the Hogs are in the midst of an eight game winning streak, which includes a pair of midweek wins over a solid New Mexico club.

Cal State Fullerton – You knew it eventually was going to happen, but it finally seems as if Fullerton is back on track. The Titans won a huge road series against UC Irvine last weekend, and is 8-2 in their last 10 games. The Titans have a high RPI and their resume continues to improve.


ICE COLD

Southern Mississippi – The Golden Eagles wish they could turn back the clock to last season. The Golden Eagles dropped a home series to UCF last weekend and fell to last place in Conference USA. Additionally, the Eagles are 4-6 in their last 10 games. Can coach Scott Berry right the ship before it’s too late?

Alabama – The Crimson Tide has played inconsistent baseball as of late, and is 4-6 in their last 10 games. The Tide earned a nice midweek win over Southeastern Louisiana, but we will see if they gain momentum from that win in a road series against LSU this weekend. The Tide needs more conference wins.

Texas A&M – The Aggies are playing a poor brand of baseball at perhaps the worst time with a series against rival Texas this weekend. The Aggies are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and are coming off a weekend series loss to Baylor and a midweek loss to TCU.

Stanford – The Cardinal is just two games over .500 and would have trouble making an NCAA regional if the season ended today. Stanford has lost two straight series to UCLA and Oregon, and must hit the road this weekend to face an Oregon State club in need of a series win, too. The Cardinal is 3-7 in their last 10.

USC – Yet another disappointing campaign for the Trojans. USC is two games below .500 with series at Arizona State and Oregon coming up the next two weekends. The Trojans are 3-7 in their last 10 games and are coming off four straight series loss to Pacific, Stanford, Oregon State and California.

Houston – The 14-17 Cougars will need a lot of wins and help down the stretch to make an NCAA regional. The Cougars haven’t won a weekend game in three weeks and are 3-7 in their last 10 games. Additionally, UH has just a 2-4 record in a down Conference USA so far this season. Another disappointing campaign for UH.

Villanova – It wasn’t too long ago we were talking about the Wildcats as a potential surprise team. Now the Wildcats are a non-factor after going 2-8 in their last 10 games. The Wildcats’ RPI has dropped to 98. Villanova will need to win the Big East tournament to make an NCAA regional.


WEEKLY STORYLINES

Virginia Tech has chance to make biggest statement – The Hokies made statements the past two weekends with series wins over Sunshine State powers Florida State and Miami, but they’re looking the most at this weekend’s series against in-state rival Virginia. The Hokies won two of three from the Cavaliers last season, but beating their rivals this season would be huge both from a confidence and postseason resume standpoint.

Can Texas earn three straight series sweeps? – The Longhorns have played a fabulous brand of baseball the past couple of weeks against Kansas and Oklahoma. The Longhorns went a combined 6-0 against the Jayhawks and Sooners. Can the Longhorns extend their streak to three straight series wins against rival Texas A&M this weekend? It definitely could happen if the Aggies continue to play like they have of late. The Aggies have had issues with runners in scoring position. Texas, meanwhile, is a very opportunistic club. Should be an interesting series.

Oregon ready for its biggest statement? – The Ducks still have some work to do in conference play even after winning a series at Stanford last weekend. They could make their biggest statement of the season by taking two of three from the top-ranked Bruins on the road this weekend. Oregon matches up with the Bruins from a pitching standpoint, but its offense must rise to the occasion to have a chance to win this series. UO likely will fall short in the series, but don’t be surprised if it comes down to the series finale on Sunday.

Clemson and Georgia Tech hit it off – After coming up just short of a series win at Virginia last weekend, there’s no question the Yellow Jackets will have some extra motivation this weekend as they play host to the Tigers. Clemson, meanwhile, hasn’t played its best baseball as of late and is coming off a tough road series loss to Duke. Both teams really need a series win. Barring a surprise, though, the Yellow Jackets will take care of business at home.


MID-MAJOR SPOTLIGHT

Michigan State coach Jake Boss Jr. isn’t real interested in a long-term plan.

No matter the situation, he always believes his program can win.

Perhaps that is why the Spartans brought Boss in to be their miracle worker.

Photo Michigan State coach Jake Boss is doing a great job so far this season.
(Michigan State)

Boss previously experienced success at Eastern Michigan (as a head coach) and Michigan (as an assistant). It’s no surprise he approached this job with a winning attitude.

In his first campaign with the program last season, Boss guided the Spartans to an unimpressive 23-31 record. The team, though, at least showed some signs of turning the corner in the future.

Perhaps even Boss didn’t think the future was now.

The Spartans still have a ways to go to nail down an NCAA postseason berth at the end of the season, but it is a distinct possibility with a solid 22-7 record. Their RPI, though, needs some work as it sits at 82 with a series against Ohio State coming this weekend.

Boss discussed his program’s success this season and the future.

Rogers: After finishing last season with a 23-31 record, the team has made a magical turnaround so far this season with a 22-7 record. Are you surprised at that?

Boss: I guess we didn’t really know what to expect going into this thing. We knew we had two starters coming back on the weekend, but we weren’t real sure whom the No. 3 starter would be. Kurt Wunderlich, though, really has emerged as a solid starter for our club. I thought we would be OK defensively even though we had a couple of freshmen in the infield. But I certainly didn’t think we would be as good defensively as we are right now. Offensively, I definitely thought we would be better than last season. We had plenty of talent last season, but just had too many ups and downs. We have been preaching consistency each week and the players have answered the call.

Rogers: Last season, the offense batted just .284. This season, though, the offense is hitting over .330. What has been the major difference from last season to this season?

Boss: First and foremost, the players on this team are just buying into our offensive concept. Perhaps I had a little different philosophy than the previous staff that was here. I just preached being very aggressive. After all, you have an aluminum bat in your hands. I don’t like to take a lot of pitches, and the players are buying into that concept. We also are much more aggressive on the base paths. Last season, it seemed like a lot of guys were afraid to take a chance and make a mistake. This season, though, we’re more aggressive and willing to take chances. We’ve built some confidence.

Rogers: Ace pitcher A.J. Achter had some major control issues last season. This season, though, he hasn’t had those issues. What did he do in the offseason to make himself a much better pitcher?

Boss: I think he has relaxed a little bit. He and a few other guys were trying to throw the ball through the wall last season. They were just more concerned with throwing the ball hard. A.J. had a nice summer and came back in the fall ready to go. He didn’t allow a run in the fall and only walked two or three hitters. He turned a corner during fall workouts. He really has evolved as a pitcher. The velocity is still there, but he doesn’t have to try to throw it so hard. He is able to locate three pitches for strikes, while also staying around 88-89 and occasionally 92 MPH with his fastball.

Rogers: You have a huge series against Ohio State coming up this weekend. Even with a fantastic record, do you still feel like you have little room for error when it comes to your postseason resume because you’re a northern school?

Boss: Sure, but I don’t want our players worrying about that. We’re trying to keep our focus with our guys on winning the next game and not worrying about outside forces. As a staff, though, we always look at those things. There really is little room for error, but that is the reality of college baseball right now. We just need to go out there, play well and earn some quality wins. This weekend is a great opportunity to do that. We need to get to 40 wins and see what happens. With the weather situation early in the season, our wins down the stretch are important.

Rogers: When you look at your roster right now, which players have been big-time surprises this season?

Boss: With this team, Jeff Holm is a guy that really has taken a huge step forward. He always has had a lot of athletic ability, but we’ve been waiting for it to come together. He is starting to come into his own. The biggest surprise right now, though, is redshirt freshman Ryan Jones. He came in as a true freshman last season and we decided to redshirt him because of off the field stuff. He found out his mother had brain cancer, and she lost her battle with that in January. He was a local kid and was just devastated by her death. We decided to redshirt him and told him to take the semester to get his family and classroom situation straight. I really had no idea what to expect this season. He has just been unbelievable, but I honestly think the year off and having to deal with such a horrible situation made him grow as a person.

Rogers: Michigan State recently renovated the ballpark to the tune of $4 million. How has that helped the program from a perception and recruiting standpoint?

Boss: Well, the upcoming summer is going to be big. We’re going to make more additions to the stadium, including new fencing, a short porch in right field with a new green monster. We also are building new concessions and have plans to do more things with our locker room facilities. We’ll see how that all goes, though. I think we have received more notoriety. There seems to be a lot more excitement around here and on the recruiting trail. We now bring kids to the newer facility and they realize it’s a pretty nice ballpark. It’s a new thing here, too, because the old facility wasn’t very good. It’s a welcomed relief for us.

Rogers: You spent a few seasons as an assistant Michigan and now are at Michigan State. What are the similiarities and differences between the two programs and schools?

Boss: There are a lot of similiarities but I believe both places are unique. When you can put 100,000 people in a football stadium every Saturday, it really goes a long way in helping out other athletic programs. We have some challenges like that. Michigan doesn’t have that challenge. There also are some challenges they have that perhaps we don’t have. But overall, there are a lot of similarities. From a baseball standpoint, though, we have work to do. They have some tradition and we don’t have much.


ROGERS' REACTION

If you had to pick right now, which weekend rotation would you go with, Texas or UCLA?

Now that isn’t a very fair question. OK, it is a fair question. That is a tough one to answer, though. UCLA has a phenomenal weekend rotation in Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen. Texas, meanwhile, has Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green and Brandon Workman leading the charge. Cole and Jungmann are equally strong, Bauer has a slight edge over Green and Rasmussen has been slightly better than Workman so far this season. Overall, it is hard to go against the Longhorns because they have been through the rigors of the College World Series. But if I had to pick a weekend rotation right now, I would go with UCLA and not turn back.

How many regional bids will Conference USA get this season?

What a disappointing campaign it has been so far this season for Conference USA. The league has made major strides the past few seasons, especially last season with Southern Mississippi reaching the College World Series. But now USM is dead last in the league and Rice appears to be the only lock to be a regional team. The Owls have a solid RPI of 36. Others, though, aren’t so fortunate. East Carolina has an RPI of 68, UCF has an RPI of 80, Tulane has an RPI of 81 and Houston, which has a losing record, has an RPI of 69. Rice will make a regional. I also believe East Carolina makes a regional before it is all said and done. Tulane is the only other team I see with a shot to make a regional. And even that is a long shot as of right now.

What has been the most surprising conference this season?

There’s no question it is the Sun Belt. Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky led the charge for the league last season. But several more teams are in the NCAA regional mix this season. The Sun Belt should benefit from Conference USA being down. Western Kentucky leads the league, but Arkansas State, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida Atlantic and Florida International all have a chance to make an NCAA regional. Middle Tennessee, too, could join the mix in the next few weeks with some nice wins. The Sun Belt has risen to the occasion.


LINEUP CARD

Photo Kentucky will miss pitcher Alex Meyer because of mono for a few weeks.
(Kentucky)

Florida has been in the headlines this week for the wrong reasons. That is because the Gators are dealing with some major injury issues. The Gators already have been without ace pitcher Tommy Toledo for a couple of weeks. But now young stud pitcher Brian Johnson will miss time because of a shoulder strain and outfielder Kamm Washington will miss the rest of the season with a torn hamstring. There is a bit of good news for the Gators, though. Third baseman Bryson Smith should be back this weekend from an injury that kept him out since March 20 and freshman left-handed pitcher Steve Rodriguez should return after being on the shelf since March 25 … Kentucky really can’t afford to lose pitchers at this point in the season, but it has no choice as starting pitcher Alex Meyer was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Meyer is expected to miss three-to-four weeks. In the meantime, the Wildcats need big-time starts from Logan Darnell and Taylor Rogers the next couple of weekends … Arizona State left-handed pitcher Josh Spence has yet to pitch this season, but appears likely to take the mound sooner rather than later. We’ve heard that before but a return by Spence would be huge for the Sun Devils … Rice has slowly worked right-handed pitcher Mike Ojala back in the starting mix after missing the first few weeks of the season rehabbing from an injury. Well, Ojala rose to the occasion against Tulane last weekend. Ojala struck out three batters and allowed just a run on three hits in five innings. The Owls are a much better team down the stretch if Ojala can stay healthy. Additionally, his leadership qualities are welcomed … South Carolina coach Ray Tanner reached a milestone with a series win over Vanderbilt last weekend. Tanner won his 1,000th game as a Division I coach. And after a nice midweek win over The Citadel, Tanner now has an overall record of 1,001-446-3 … Everyone has been following the progress of LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo. Ranaudo had his longest outing since returning to the weekend rotation last weekend against Auburn. Ranaudo struck out three batters and allowed three runs on five hits in five innings of work … Western Kentucky coach Chris Finwood confirmed this week that the Hilltoppers, which have a high RPI, will try to host an NCAA regional at their home field if their season continues to progress as it currently is … There were a pair of no hitters thrown last week, though, both were in seven inning affairs. Fresno State pitcher Greg Gonzalez accomplished the feat in a 1-0 victory over WAC rival Hawaii, while Lehigh’s Greg Angelo accomplished the goal in a 2-0 victory over Lafayette in Patriot League action.


THINKING POSTSEASON

Virginia Tech – The Hokies were devastated last season when they fell short of an NCAA regional appearance. Well, the Hokies are going to have to work their way out of a regional appearance this season. They took a huge step forward last weekend with a home series win over Hurricanes. Tech still needs to improve its 4-7 mark against RPI Top 50 teams, but an RPI of 45 definitely would get it in today.

Cal State Fullerton – It wasn’t too long ago the Titans were just glad to be in NCAA regional projections. Now the Titans easily could earn a regional host between now and the end of the season. The Titans have played an excellent brand of baseball the past couple of weeks. They also made a huge statement last weekend with a road series win over UC Irvine. The Titans climbed to 11 in the latest RPI, but still needs to improve its 5-7 record against RPI Top 50 clubs.

Auburn – We speak for the rest of the SEC when we saw it’s about time the Tigers are in the mix for an NCAA postseason appearance. With a huge home series win over LSU last weekend, the Tigers climbed to 18 in the latest RPI with a solid 22-11 record. The Tigers only have a 6-8 record against RPI Top 50 teams, but the fact they’re 7-5 in SEC play definitely would get them in the postseason if the season ended today. AU’s postseason drought should be over this spring.

Baylor – The Bears have been red hot the past couple of weeks and made a nice move forward after taking two of three from rival and high-RPI Texas A&M. The Bears have an RPI of 34 with a .500 conference record. They are 5-6 against Top 50 RPI teams, but could make another statement this weekend with a road series win over Kansas State. BU has a wealth of work to do to get this done, but it actually could move into regional host contention with a strong finish to the regular season.

Conference USA – This conference has made some huge strides the past few seasons, but has taken a huge step back so far this season. Rice, the league leader, is a safe bet to make an NCAA regional with an RPI of 36. However, another bid is not a given for the C-USA this season. East Carolina has an RPI of 68 and Tulane has an RPI of 81. Houston, meanwhile, has an RPI of 69, but also possesses a losing record. UCF, which is red-hot and has an RPI of 83, is a team to watch the rest of the season.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Apr 15, 2010