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Ducks pack their business suits for opener at Hawaii

(The Register-Guard) — Snow was on the field and rain in the air as Oregon finished preseason preparations at PK Park this week.

The scenery will change quickly tonight when the Ducks open the baseball season at Hawaii.

"The forecast looks pretty good," third baseman Scott Heineman said. "I prefer heat over cold any day. In terms of weather, you can't get better than Hawaii to start it off."

Oregon will play four games against the Rainbow Warriors, who went 16-35 last season. The Ducks are trying to repeat last season's four-game opening sweep at Hawaii.

"It's a business trip," Oregon coach George Horton said. "It sounds sexy to go to Hawaii and with the weather here; a lot of people are trying to get on the travel list. Hawaii is a good team, well-coached, and that is a hard place to win."

The Ducks were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 in a preseason coaches poll, and they are ranked in the top 10 of four national preseason polls, so expectations are high.

"I think we can do it, I think we can make it to Omaha," junior pitcher Tommy Thorpe said, repeating the goal of reaching the College World Series that has eluded the Ducks in recent seasons.

Thorpe, who went 7-5 with a 2.16 ERA last year, is the staff ace after Cole Irvin was lost for the season following Tommy John surgery. Thorpe will take the mound in the opener.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," the southpaw said. "I feel a lot of pressure now, but as soon as I get on the mound, that goes away. I'm relaxed on the mound, just playing my game."

Junior Jordan Spencer, who gets the first shot to replace Irvin as a weekend starter when conference play begins, will start Saturday, followed by the debut of highly touted freshman lefty Matt Krook on Sunday.

"Can't wait, I'm excited," he said. "Especially at a place like Hawaii, I heard it's crazy there. The fans get into it, so it will be nerve-wracking."

Senior Jeff Gold starts the finale on Monday, and Horton said his starters might not pitch as long early in the year.

"No matter how much you want to build their arms up early in the season, you have to watch the pitch count," he said. "They will be excited for their first start and 80 or 90 pitches early in the season with adrenaline is probably more significant than 80 or 90 down the road. Every coach in the country will rely on their relief corps more early in the season than later on."

Jake Reed is the new closer for the Ducks after moving from the starting rotation. Garrett Cleavinger and Darrell Hunter will provide experience in the bullpen.

Heineman will get the season started for the Ducks when he leads off against Hawaii starter Matt Cooper tonight.

"I like that they put me at leadoff; it is the place where I feel like I fit best," Heineman said. "It starts with me, I set the tempo and I hope that dictates how the game goes. I can get on base, create some things and make things happen for us."

Heineman has been a utility player and moved around the lineup during his first two seasons, but he's now set as Oregon's starting third baseman and will stay at the top of the order as long as he can produce.

"I wasn't as comfortable in the 1-hole last year, but I found comfort with it in the Cape Cod League," Heineman said. "Last year, I had never played an actual game in center field and had two scrimmages leading up to the year before playing there. Now I am comfortable at a position where I have worked all fall and winter."

Aaron Payne is a returning starter at second base, but the Ducks need to replace their best hitter in first baseman Ryon Healy and their best fielder in shortstop J.J. Altobelli. Sophomore Mitchell Tolman, who batted .315 with 37 RBIs last year, will start at first, and senior Kevin Minjares takes over at shortstop.

"(Minjares) is a heady player; he exudes leadership," Horton said. "We've got Heineman at third, who is a tough guy that plays hard, and Payne has been through the wars at second base."

Kyle Garlick, who missed much of last season with a wrist injury, will play left field or be the designated hitter. Tyler Baumgartner will start in right field, and either Connor Hofmann or Austin Grebeck will play center field.

Horton will start freshman Jack Kruger at catcher. Josh Graham and Shaun Chase are the backups.

"The way we typically do things, it is nice to have two or three quality catchers in a 60-game season, and we do," Horton said. "If we said, 'Who is the one catcher who would catch this game to win the game?', it would be Jack Kruger. There is not a lot of gap between all three."

Last year, Healy carried the offense, but the Ducks hope for more balance this season.

"Last year, we had some holes where we were not as consistent," Heineman said. "We relied heavily on one guy. This year, it's a different situation, it will be a team effort. It was last year too, but one guy stood out. Everyone in the lineup is doing their part, and I think we will produce more than last year."

The hope is that more production on offense can take the Ducks deeper into the postseason.

"Our objective this week is to try and win four games," Horton said. "One of our mission statements is to start fast and finish strong. What we haven't been able to do is finish strong. I'd love to start fast, it keeps you in the hunt and everything is better when you're winning. Then improve along the way to allow us a chance to finish strong."


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