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Oregon's Isaac Ayon, now fully healthy, is feeling 'better than ever' ahead of 2024 season

Jarrid Denneyby:Jarrid Denney01/24/24


The Oregon baseball team is still 23 days away from opening its 2024 season. But if the first few scrimmages of the year are any indicator, the ace of the Ducks’ pitching staff is looking more and more like his old self.

Isaac Ayon was projected to be Oregon’s Friday night starter in 2023 but missed the entire season due to injury. He is back fully healthy now, though, and could be ready to once again slot in at the top of the Ducks’ rotation.

“The first pitch he threw was 96, top of the zone,” Oregon outfielder Bryce Boettcher said while recalling his at-bat against Ayon in a scrimmage earlier this month. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s back.'”

Ayon’s return could prove to be massive for an Oregon squad that reached its first NCAA Super Regional in over a decade last season, despite the fact that it was missing its top three starting pitchers for most of the year.

During his last healthy season in 2022, Ayon served as the Ducks’ Friday night starter and went 4-4 with a 5.77 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings. Although he didn’t throw a single pitch last season, the Washington Nationals thought highly enough of the 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior to select him in the 20th round of the Major League Baseball Draft.

But Ayon put his childhood dream on hold and opted to return to UO for one more season — in large part because he felt a sense of loyalty toward the program and coaching staff that brought him to Eugene.

“I didn’t play. So, I wanted to be able to come back and do something for Oregon and (coach Mark Wasikowski); Waz has treated me very well since I’ve been here,” Ayon said. “So, I thought I could give back and come play, at least, and do something good for our team.”

Throughout the second half of last season, Wasikowski continually expressed an optimistic outlook that Ayon — as well as standout junior Jace Stoffal — would return from their respective injuries in May or June to help aid the Ducks during their postseason run.

But that never happened.

Both hurlers were sidelined through the Pac-12 Tournament, regional, and super-regional, and Oregon was forced to lean heavily on its cluster of freshmen arms.

While speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Ayon revealed that he underwent a ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) brace repair on Nov. 16, 2022. The procedure, which serves as an alternative to Tommy John surgery, is the same one that Oregon right-hander RJ Gordon underwent last season, too.

Gordon, who has also fully recovered and is expected to play an integral role for the Ducks this season, said he and Ayon leaned heavily on each other during the recovery process.

“We’re roommates, too, so we’re together all the time,” Gordon said. “We just kind of went through that process together as much as we could. Learning from each other, how we’re feeling — it’s been great.”

Last year marked the first lengthy injury layoff of Ayon’s career. His time away from the field allowed him to tweak his delivery and fine-tune his three-pitch mix; he’s scrapped the cutter that he tinkered with over the past few seasons in order to focus on improving the rest of his arsenal.

“I can tell you his pitching delivery is smoother; it’s less effort and there’s a lot of positives in what we’re seeing from a mechanics standpoint,” Wasikowski said of Ayon. “I give credit to (pitching coach Blake Hawksworth) and Isaac for making the adjustments that he’s needed to make to be able to say that.”

The year-long respite also helped Ayon recharge and discover his passion for the game. During his final college season, he said, he’s learned to live in the moment and enjoy each day that he is on the field.

“Not having baseball, I kind of got that fire re-lit under me to come back this year,” Ayon said. “I’m back and better than ever. I’m feeling good.”

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