May 3, 2016
By Rob Moseley
Oregon had a two-run lead and dominating closer Stephen Nogosek on the mound in the eighth inning Monday, but a little more insurance is always nice.
Senior outfielder Nick Catalano led off the bottom of the inning with an infield single deep into the hole between third and short. He eventually came around with the final run in Oregon’s 5-2 nonconference victory over San Diego, giving the Ducks (21-17) a three-game win streak heading into the start of a series at Arizona State on Friday.
The single gave Catalano his first two-hit game of the season, and brought his average up to .275. The senior has started four of the past five games, and is 4-for-12 in those four starts, a cool .333 average.
“I think he’s finding his stride now, as the season unfolds,” said UO assistant coach Mark Wasikowski, who oversees the team’s lineup.
Primarily a late-inning defensive replacement before earning some pinch-hitting opportunities in the last month, Catalano hasn’t had the senior year he might have dreamed of – on the field, at least. But in the classroom, the native of Anaheim, Calif., will need just one summer class to complete a rigorous business administration major, and with a grade-point average around 3.4.
Catalano, who chose Oregon in part because of its business program, will complete his degree in four years because of some hard choices he’s faced, and because he had the maturity to focus his efforts the right way. He’s only in position to complete his degree, with a sports business emphasis, because last fall Catalano prioritized academics over athletics, and enrolled in classes the forced him to miss valuable practice time with the baseball team.
“A lot of kids come to the university thinking they’re going to be business majors, but not all student-athletes have the follow-through to stick with it when the going gets tough,” said Steve Stolp, executive director for UO Services for Student-Athletes at the Jaqua Center. “He was one of those guys that did.”
Catalano started 31 games as a sophomore and 35 as a junior, earning Pac-12 all-academic honors each season; he hoped to build on that with a full-time role as a senior this spring. Significant groundwork would have to be laid in practices and scrimmages during the fall – when Catalano’s business major also required significant attention in the form of upper division classes, and group projects that were tough to schedule around baseball commitments.
At one point, Catalano called home, uncertain he could continue juggling both pursuits. He knew how slim the odds were of playing baseball professionally. But he also didn’t want to give up too easily on that dream.
“’Listen, I don’t know if I can do this,’” Catalano recalled telling his mom. “’It’s too much for me.’ She was like, stick with it. I just stuck it out. In the moment, you feel like everything’s so dramatic. But I was able to step back and think, what do I really want to get out of this? I figured I’d hang with it.”
Stolp sees Catalano’s dedication to academics paying off down the road.
“I could see Nick being involved somehow in the business side of baseball somewhere, I really could,” Stolp said. “He’s got a great mind for that kind of stuff.”
Catalano’s decision did not come without sacrifice. He missed many of the Ducks’ fall scrimmages, key situations to impress coaches with his readiness for a starting outfield spot. The value of seeing live pitching was something he just couldn’t recreate by himself in the cage or off a tee.
Catalano had a hit off the bench in his first at-bat of this season, but it was another month until his next, and until his first starting assignment. There were other sacrifices in-season – on bus rides and flights during road trips, Catalano often finds himself reaching into his bag for a textbook rather than horsing around with his teammates.
“Time management is really important, and that’s something I think is hard for younger guys to understand,” Catalano said. “They just kind of go with the flow, instead of thinking ahead. Sometimes you’ve just got to put your headphones in and block everything out; turn on that overhead light when you’d rather try and sleep. You know there’s only a certain amount of time, and you’ve got to utilize every moment.”
Though a role player to start the season, Catalano did his best to retain a positive attitude and keep working as hard as ever. He is a member of the Ducks’ leadership council, and as respected a voice as there is in the locker room, Wasikowski said.
The decision to choose academics over baseball in the fall, Wasikowski went on to say, was the rare instance of Catalano putting his personal interests ahead of the team. And yet, who could blame him?
“It’s hard to back off chasing the dream of being a major-league ballplayer, and at the same time understand the value of a degree,” Wasikowski said. “Nick has his priorities right.
“It’s hard for a senior – hard for anybody, but particularly a senior – to come off the bench. Man, do those guys want to be in the lineup every day. Coming off the bench and keeping yourself ready, in some ways that’s harder than being the lineup every day. He’s had to do it the hard way, but now here we are coming down the stretch and he’s hitting in the five hole. He’s been a tough out, and a quality competitor.”
Monday’s win over San Diego was a perfect example of how Catalano has kept himself ready, and positioned himself to expand his role.
One of the reasons he started in the first place was to give the Ducks another right-handed bat against San Diego’s left-handed starter. That pitcher didn’t make it out of the first inning, but by then Oregon already had a lead. At that point, Catalano’s athleticism in the outfield was an asset as the Ducks looked to hang on.
That kept him in the lineup for three more at-bats against San Diego’s two relievers – both right-handed pitchers – and Catalano banged out two hits off them. By proving he can hit right-handers as well, he only enhances his standing in the eyes of coaches.
And he’s done all that without compromising his academics.
“In the fall it was hard only getting a few at-bats; that put me in a little hole,” Catalano said. “But big picture, I’m very happy with the decisions I’ve made. There’s bigger things than baseball, and I’m glad I could understand that.”