Second baseman J.J. Altobelli drifted back as right fielder Darrell Hunter hustled in, and both appeared to nestle securely under the high pop fly.
Either player could have easily made the catch. But instead, the ball dropped out of the clear blue sky and landed untouched on the green outfield grass of Vince Genna Stadium.
The timing for such a blunder could hardly have been worse, as it allowed the potential tie-breaking run to reach base in the top of the ninth inning. And, it happened in front of several dozen aspiring young ballplayers, all waiting to take part in a clinic to be put on after the game by Altobelli, Hunter, and their University of Oregon teammates.
After the defensive gaffe, one could almost hear the Little Leaguers thinking: “And these guys are going to teach US the fundamentals of baseball?” But on the other hand, maybe the timing for the embarrassing misplay wasn’t so bad.
It did, after all, take place during a meaningless intrasquad game.
“A good thing to happen in a scrimmage,” said Altobelli, a freshman from Newport Beach, Calif. “It was just a fly ball, but the wind kept taking it out ... I thought the outfielder (Hunter, a sophomore from Springfield’s Thurston High) was going to take it. It was just a miscommunication.”
And precisely the kind of wrinkle that UO head coach George Horton was looking to iron out during Saturday’s “Fall Preview” event, in which the Ducks’ Yellow and Green teams played to a 6-6 tie.
A crowd announced at 243 looked on as the Oregon baseball program, starting its second season after 28 years on the shelf, made its Central Oregon debut as guest of the Bend Elks summer collegiate team and the Elks’ founder and owner, Jim Richards.
The Ducks played under sunny skies on a pleasantly warm day marked by a breeze that kicked up at times to blow colorful leaves from nearby trees into and around Genna Stadium.
“We haven’t dealt with wind a lot in Eugene,” Horton said of workouts so far this fall at the Ducks’ home facility. “But I think we dealt with it pretty well today.”
In fact, the same wind that caused Altobelli trouble on that ninth-inning fly ball helped him deliver the biggest hit of the afternoon. In the top of the fourth inning, Altobelli hit a slicing drive to right field that had just enough carry to get over the fence a few feet inside the foul pole.
“I think that was wind-aided,” he admitted later with a grin.
Wind-aided or not, it was a two-run home run that brought Altobelli’s Yellow team back from an early deficit to within 4-3.
Two other Ducks homered Saturday, both in the Green team’s half of the second inning. Taylor Ausbun, a redshirt freshman catcher from Puyallup, Wash., hit a blast over the wall in right-center field to lead off the second. Three batters later, Andrew Schmidt, a senior infielder from Roswell, Ga., drilled a pitch by Yellow team left-hander Tyler Anderson over the fence in left-center field for a solo home run and a 2-1 Green lead.
Horton explained that his pitchers — including starters Anderson, a sophomore from Las Vegas, and the Green team’s Christian Jones, a freshman lefty from Danville, Calif. — were not at their best Saturday.
“They’re frustrated because we’re not letting them throw breaking balls,” said Horton. “But this (fall) is fastball and change-up time. They have to be patient.”
So does Horton.
A two-time national coach of the year at Cal State Fullerton, where his teams won 490 games and a College World Series championship in 11 seasons, Horton left the Southern California baseball powerhouse to engineer the revival of baseball at Oregon.
It has been a challenge. Last spring, in their first season back on the diamond, the Ducks struggled to an overall record of 14-42 and were just 4-23 in Pac-10 play — last in the conference.
“For me, and for a lot of our players, we had to deal with that kind of failure for the first time,” Horton reflected Saturday. “It affected me. It got to where my food didn’t even taste good at dinner.
“That has motivated us — not wanting to go through that experience again.”
The veteran coach seemed happy with most of what he saw from his still-developing team during its scrimmage at Genna Stadium. And there was no doubt he was pleased with the Ducks’ first Central Oregon experience, suggesting that UO baseball might well make a trip to Bend a regular part of its fall schedule.
“We’ve had a great time,” Horton said as Duck players and coaches prepared to put 60-plus youngsters through drills in the free postgame clinic. “The reception we got here from Jim Richards and this community has been great.
“It’s been a good bonding experience,” he added. “Good for our staff and for our team.”