Oregon Ducks baseball team looks to build upon last year's surprise season

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It might be chilly outside, but the college baseball season is almost here.

The Oregon Ducks baseball team will begin practice Friday afternoon as they look to build on what was a surprise 2021 season.

A year after finishing 8-7 in a COVID-19 pandemic--shortened year, Oregon ended last season 39-16 and second in the Pac-12. The Ducks also qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in program history before losing to LSU in the Eugene Regional.

Less than a month from the Ducks first game, Coach Mark Wasikowski says he hopes to maintain that same momentum from last year.

"Last year was a great year for the baseball program," Wasikowski said. "Last year's club, if you were to ask people at the beginning of the year what was going to happen, there were going to be a lot of question marks.

"To be able to answer that question last year by hosting a regional. Unfortunately, we didn't win that regional, but boy, what an accomplishment it was to finish one game out of first place at the end of last year's regular season in the Pac-12 race.

"This year, turn the page on what we have moving forward."

Oregon will need to turn that page without several key players no longer on its team. Gone are fifth-year seniors Aaron Zavala, Kenyon Yovan and Gabe Matthews.

The trio of Zavala, Yovan and Matthews combined for 34 home runs and 130 RBIs a year ago. The Ducks will also need to replace pitchers Robert Ahlstrom and Cullen Kafka, who combined for 14 wins.

Oregon will begin the season with a four-game series at San Diego on Feb.18-21. A Feb. 25 game against St. John's kicks off a nine-game homestand that includes a three-game series against UC Santa Barbara on March 4-6 and one game against Portland March 8.

The good news is Oregon is fully healthy entering the season. However, Wasikowski understands the Ducks have many questions to answer.

"We lost some significant pieces to the draft, there's no doubt about it," Wasikowski said. "When you lose your top three-weekend starting pitchers and your top three hitters, you have a lot of people who have left the program.

"I think that's a big reason why the pollsters would look at this group and question how good this team is going to be. We have question marks like we did a year ago. But we like what we see on the field.

"We feel like we can contend for a Pac-12 championship and we feel like this team is going to be really strong."

Key players

While the Ducks have many questions, they return some talented players. That includes infielder Josh Kasevich and outfielder Anthony Hall. In 55 games last season, Kasevich batted .324 with four home runs and 50 RBIs. Hall also impressed at the plate hitting .286, six home runs and 36 RBIs.

Both Kasevich (No.77) and Hall (No. 91) are listed on MLB's Jonathan Mayo's top-100 draft prospects for the 2022 MLB Draft. Oregon also has another top-100 prospect in transfer Adam Maier (No. 80).

Ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 transfer in the nation after playing in the Cape Cod League, the 20-year-old Maier from British Columbia will look to fill the pitching void left by Ahlstrom, Kafka and Brett Walker. As a freshman at the University of British Columbia, Maier was a two-way player as he posted a 2.84 ERA along with registering 18 hits in 2020.

"He pitched a lot during the summer," Wasikowski said. "Now he is ramped back up for the spring. He looks like a guy that will be one of our top three starters, if not our best starter.

"Time will tell on that, but he has a heck of an arm. He has a chance to be a high draft pick and we are happy he chose to come to Oregon."

Upgraded field, more offense?

Fans who come out to PK Park to watch the Ducks play this season won't just notice some new players on the field.

PK Park underwent considerable offseason upgrades designed to enhance the fan experience in the field of play and improve the overall baseball facility.

Among the changes is a new video board in left field. Also, new turf and the wall in right-center field has been moved in 10 feet. The changes will likely create more of a hitter-friendly ballpark.

"It's going to take some time to get used to because, obviously, the old park was a little bigger," Hall said.

"I'm more excited for the offensive part. That will help us a little bit, especially me. So I'm excited for that."

Contact Register-Guard sportswriter Antwan Staley at astaley@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Ducks baseball team looks to build upon last year's surprise season

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