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The baseball is good again. Does that mean Omaha or bust?
Is a trip to the College World Series needed to validate what the Ducks have rebuilt?
EUGENE — Kevin Costner once had a catch here.
OK, so it was technically over at the old Civic Stadium, but there the Hollywood star was in 2008 wearing Ducks gear and throwing the ball around with his son while waxing poetic about the future of Oregon baseball. The Ducks had just hired his friend, George Horton, to the richest contract in the Pac-10 and Costner’s band, Modern West, was set to play a pair of shows at the Hult Center to benefit the reborn baseball program.
Not every star readies for a performance with batting practice and turning double plays up the middle with then-Oregon administrator Joe Giansante. Then again, not every star played Ray Kinsella.
“Not everybody feels this way about baseball, but for those that do, it was the fabric of our life when we were little,” Costner said then. “And you get to relive it as long as your legs will get you there.”
At a time when Oregon athletics was climbing the ladder into a new stratosphere of national branding, the Ducks were eight months away from playing their first season of college baseball in 28 years.
Oregon had its coach. It had star power. And in August of 2008 ground would break on PK Park, right next to Autzen Stadium.
If you build it, they will come.
Mark Wasikowski had never seen anything like what he saw Saturday night at PK Park. The comeback was one thing: In the first game of the team’s Super Regional against Oral Roberts, the Ducks fell behind 8-0 in the top of the third inning, only to methodically chip away at the deficit until Drew Cowley singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to take Game 1 of the best-of-three series, 9-8.
“Chip away” in this case means a pair of home runs from Bennett Thompson, one from Jacob Walsh and another from Drew Smith.
But Wasikowski has seen this team come back plenty of times. Friday marked the third time this season that Oregon has come from behind to win after trailing by seven runs or more.
“We do this thing throughout the fall, we call it the “Skins Game” in our scrimmages, where the goal is to not win, but the overall game is to win every inning,” Thompson said. “You saw that after the third inning that we were able to win something like five or six of the six innings.
“It is hard to have an eight-run inning. You cannot get it all back at once, but if you keep chipping away and chipping away at a pitching staff, keeping the pressure on them, that is all you can do in that situation.”
Said Wasikowski: “This team won’t quit.”
The fans wouldn’t let them, either. That was new.
Since Oregon’s CWS hopes fell to the ground of this same ballpark against Kent State 11 years ago, Oregon baseball has merely existed. Talent has certainly played between the poles of PK Park. Outfield banners proudly claim 82 MLB Draft picks and another 37 calls up to the big leagues. And in Horton’s 11 seasons with the team the Ducks won 375 of 657 games with five appearances in the postseason.
But none of those came in his final four years. While Oregon’s football, softball and basketball programs sustained levels of national success, PK Park often sat listless. When Horton was hired, he once joked Oregonians would quickly forget of Oregon State’s dominance in the sport. Eleven seasons later, Horton’s last game with the Ducks came as a 5-4 loss to No. 1 UCLA in front of 1,416 people.
“He gave us everything he had,” Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens told me in 2019 after the Ducks and Horton parted ways. “When we sat down at the end of the year and reviewed, it was just time to pivot and kind of go on to the next phase of Oregon baseball.”
Mullens watched Friday night from a full PK Park box that included Tinker Hatfield. More boxes were filled with the veritable who’s who of Oregon’s coaches and boosters. Pat Kilkenny watched from his perch in the press box, while Oregon men’s basketball coach Dana Altman, Horton, about two dozen shirtless students and 5,000 others watched from the stands. Tickets for this series sold out in two hours after going on sale earlier this week; free parking, a clear forecast and Oregon’s nine-game winning streak had everyone in the ballpark feeling some sort of way.
In Wasikowski’s four seasons, the Ducks have ditched the small ball that highlighted the Horton era, literally moved in the fences and smashed all of the program’s offensive records. Maybe it’s why, after the air was momentarily sucked out of the stadium in the top of the third, all it took was Walsh sending the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the frame over the left-field wall to light the tinder box.
Thompson followed four pitches later with his own shot off the scoreboard.
“It’s hard to get down when you’re down 8-0 when you have 5,000 people cheering for you,” Thompson said. “…In that last inning, Waz told us to take a deep breath, relax and let the crowd provide the energy. We don’t have to do any of that, they’re going to do it for us.”
The place darn-near exploded when Cowley’s one-out poke to right ended things in the ninth. Fans were still buzzing while walking shoulder-to-shoulder out of the stadium with their Ducks only a win away from the College World Series.
Of course, Oregon’s been here before. The 2012 season was Wasikowski’s first as an assistant with the Ducks, back in a time when it seemed like hosting Super Regionals and flirtations with the CWS would be an annual occurrence.
It’s been a long way back, and Wasikowski said they still have a long way to go in shaping his program — a quest that will continue whether this weekend becomes a historic one for the Ducks or another hurdle to overcome.
“You create your own traditions,” Wasikowski said. “You create your traditions with hard work, you create your traditions with belief and you create your traditions with young people that love each other.
“…I believe in this community and I think my players do, too. I think that they showed that tonight.”
— Tyson Alger
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