When a team is stacked with as many underclassmen as the Oregon Ducks have, maybe it's only natural to be questioning the team's mentality.
Through 43 games, the Ducks are just three games above .500--greatly underachieving based on preseason expectations. Many people have speculated what the reason may be: an embarrassing lack of run support; a struggling bullpen; inexperience; a lack of confidence. But head coach George Horton has his own answer--and one that probably contributes to all of the speculation.
"I guess if there is a complaint about my team, it's that we don't handle difficult things very well-being behind, umpires calls, the at bat that's real important," he said on Thursday. "Is that because they're bad kids? No, but they're not mentally tough enough."
It's hard to argue with that.
This is a team that has struggled mightily to deliver in crunch time. And it's also a team that is seemingly paralyzed by adversity. The Ducks do not have a single win when trailing after the sixth inning.
As the old baseball cliché states: baseball is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. That has been Horton's message this season. But as the immaturity would have it, the Ducks haven't bought in. In their first practice since their earth-shattering victory over the No. 3 Oregon State Beavers on Tuesday, the Ducks' lacked the type of intensity that Horton would like to see as they prepare for No. 27 UCLA.
"We practiced yesterday, and I thought our mentality... it was a little immature and a little frivolous," he said.
But it wasn't until practice ended that the issues facing this team were giving a little more clarity.
"I was a little disappointed, and I actually asked a couple of my Ducks, ‘how much of this game, at our level, do you think is mental and mentality?' And unfortunately one of them said 10 percent, which kind of explains a lot," Horton said. "I happen to think it's a lot more. We can teach them and ask them and tell them, but they have to buy into it and use it. That's really kind of been our demise. What's really inside of them when its gets tough? I don't know."
Horton's remarks come on the eve of an important and challenging series against the Bruins. Friday and Saturday night's games will showcase some of the best pitching college baseball has to offer. Tyler Anderson for Oregon, and Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer for UCLA are all projected to be first round draft picks this year. Cole might even be the first overall selection, while Bauer could win college baseball's player of the year award. And then there is Madison Boer, who the Ducks recommended for all-American honors this year.
These will be games decided by the slightest of margins--and it's likely that margin will be decided by maturity.
So, do I think that Horton's comments on Thursday were a ploy to light a fire under his team--maybe even get them a little pissed? Yes, I do. But that doesn't make them any less true. But at the same time, why should anybody be shocked?
The Ducks run out four or five freshman every game, and expectations are that they will deliver like seasoned upperclassmen. From day one, expectations for this team were unreachable. It should be expected that there could be a steep learning curve when you're talking about players that have never played on a stage as big this one. They are going to need time to acclimate and become comfortable with playing in front of a couple thousand people each night.
As we've gotten deeper into the season, we're starting to see the potential of what lies ahead. They are showing they can play with talented teams. But many contests are coming down to production in late innings, and the Ducks don't have the experience or maturity to handle those situations in the same way proven teams do. It's something that will come with time, and eventually the maturity will catch up with the talent.
This season could be the best thing for the future of the Ducks. Young players are learning how to handle that pressure, and that's something that will payoff in upcoming seasons.
Looking at the series this weekend, I expect the Ducks to challenge the Bruins just as they've been challenging Pac-10 teams as of late. But as a team, this group doesn't have that "clutch gene." I know they've delivered late in games on a few occasion, but not with consistency.
However, if there is one thing I've learned from watching the Ducks, it's that they're unpredictable. That clutch hit could come, but it all comes down to how they handle the pressure.
Horton said that catcher Jack Marder could be out with an injured thumb. He's not sure what the time table is, but it sounded like it could keep him sidelined for longer than just this weekend.