When Ryon Healy arrived at the park on Saturday, he went through his normal pregame routine. It was business as usual for the freshman that had started only eight games this year. After taking a batting practice that impressed head coach George Horton, Healy went to check the starting lineup. To his surprise, his name was penciled-in as the designated hitter in the biggest game of the year for the Oregon Ducks (21-17, 4-8 Pac-10).
He took advantage of Horton's faith as Healy went 3-for-3 with two RBI and connected in his second at-bat of the game for his first career home run. It was a spark in the lineup that helped propel the Ducks to a 7-3 win over the Arizona Wildcats (24-15, 6-9 Pac-10), as they clintched their first Pacific-10 series win on Saturday at PK Park.
"I was very excited," Healy said of starting on Saturday. "I wasn't expecting it. I came here and got my work in, and came and looked at the lineup and saw my name in there, so I was very excited to get a chance to play."
Healy was one of five freshmen in the stating lineup for a must-win game for the Ducks.
The decision to start Healy came from what Horton saw before the game.
"It was kind of guess work from us on deciding who was going to play first and DH today," Horton said. "(Ryon Healy) was the best in batting practice and my coaching staff and I obviously played the right card. Good for Ryon."
Healy is not limited to being ask to perform at the plate. He has appeared three times on the mound this year while starting two of those times. During his senior year at Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, Calif., he used his arm and his bat to lead his team to a Mission League championship.
Since coming to the Ducks, he's had to learn how to prepare himself as a role player. His performance on this day, exemplified the type of player Horton wants to see.
"I've said it all along that real men stay ready when their opportunity presents itself, and Ryon--superstar out of high school--hasn't been getting to pitch or play all the time," Horton said. "He stayed ready, so good for him."
Following a game where the Ducks offense was held to only three hits and no runs, they stayed patient at the plate and got on the scoreboard early and often.
After allowing a Wildcat run in the first inning, the Ducks responded with two runs in the bottom half of the inning. Second baseman Danny Pulfer, who said the Ducks' approach at the plate on Friday was immature, drew a leadoff walk. With two outs, right fielder Aaron Jones hit a line drive to the gap in left-center, scoring Pulfer from first. Healy eventually scored Jones from second base on a single to center field. Healy led off the bottom of the third inning with the Ducks ahead 4-1. On a 3-2 count, he drove the pitch over the left-center wall for a home run and extending the lead to 5-1.
"Ryon's a great kid," Pulfer said. Emotional kind of kid. He's made some spot starts for us and has done real well for us on both sides of the field. For him to have a game like that today, it just shows how much these freshmen are capable of."
The Ducks called on Alex Keudell to retire a Arizona lineup that ranks as one of the best in the country--also, in the most critical game of the year. Keudell was shaky early but settled down a little after the first inning. In total, he pitched 5.2 innings, struck out three, walked three, allowed three earned runs and seven hits. He spent most of the day working out of the stretch as he allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base on singles in four innings. He began to tire in the sixth inning as he allowed a run on two walks and a double.
Relief pitcher Scott McGough entered the game with runners on first and second with two outs and the score 6-3. McGough struck out the pinch hitter, Bobby Brown. McGough would go on to throw 3.1 innings, allowed two hits, two walks and struck out four. It was reassuring to see the bullpen-McGough more than anyone-close the door in over three innings of work.
The Ducks still sit towards the bottom of the Pac-10 standings, but there is room to climb with 16 games left against conference opponents. Next weekend the Ducks head to the Bay Area to square off with the No. 15 California Golden Bears, who were swept this weekend at the hands of No. 9 Arizona State. Teams in this conference continue to beat-up on each other, making it increasingly possible for the Ducks to climb back into this race.
The Ducks just proved that they can play with-and beat-the toughest offensive team in the conference-oh, the magic of great pitching. But they will have to continue to ride this momentum, as the Ducks need a series victory, probably, in each of their remaining conference series'. That will mean the pitching needs to remain unhittable, Danny Pulfer needs to continue his tear in the leadoff spot-he is batting .343. on the year-and its clear, the freshmen will need to mature quickly as they will be called-on to perform in some of the most pressure-filled situations they ever been in. For the team that has been disregarded from postseason talk, it's a situation they're glad to be in.
KC Serna found himself in the starting lineup on Friday and Saturday. This was largely due to the fact that the Ducks wanted J.J. Altobelli playing third base. Stefan Sabol was playing third on Thursday, but doesn't have the quickness that Altobelli has. The decision paid off and the argument could be made that the Ducks don't win this series if Altobelli isn't playing third. He made amazing plays throughout the series and proved he needs to be at third for the Ducks--good news for Serna. (That is the reason he had a face full of shaving cream after Saturday's game.
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