A win Saturday would put the Oregon baseball team a game away from moving on to Super Regionals. To take that next step, the Ducks will turn to a hometown kid on the mound.
The ace of the UO baseball staff this season has been junior left-hander Robert Ahlstrom. Just a few years ago, he was a wiry four-sport athlete at North Eugene High School, a guy whose only contact with the Oregon baseball program came when he’d scrounge up a ticket to sit in the stands at PK Park. On Saturday, the fans sitting in those same stands will be watching as Ahlstrom tries to get the Ducks one step closer to winning the Eugene Regional in the NCAA Championship tournament.
Ahlstrom will get the ball Saturday night when the Ducks host Gonzaga at 7 p.m. On the heels of Friday’s 13-10 victory over Central Connecticut, the Ducks need to win once Saturday and once Sunday to advance to Super Regionals.
During the regular season, Ahlstrom took the ball each Friday night against the best pitcher on the opposing team’s staff, and went 8-3 with 86 strikeouts against 15 walks. Despite leading the Pac-12 with an ERA of 2.41 and a ratio of 5.73 strikeouts for each walk he allowed, Ahlstrom wasn’t named Pac-12 pitcher of the year; opposing coaches may not appreciate Ahlstrom as much as some other pitchers out there, but the Ducks sure do.
“I think he takes pride in being the ace of the pitching staff,” UO pitching coach Jake Angier said. “That means something to him. He takes pride in setting the tone for us.”
The tone Ahlstrom sets is that of a fiery competitor with command of four pitches, and the confidence to execute any of them in any situation. Some pitchers have great stuff but wilt under pressure; others are gritty but lack a diverse arsenal. Ahlstrom in 2021 has combined both.
Ahlstrom’s assertive, no-nonsense mound demeanor might come from his mother, Heather. She grew up working on her father’s ranch, keeping the other ranch hands in line.
“She was like, 13, bossing around grown men,” Ahlstrom said with a laugh.
Heather was also an athlete, playing volleyball, basketball and softball in high school. Her boys, Tommy and Robert, inherited her athleticism, and also her fiery spirit.
“Everything we did was a competition,” Ahlstrom said. “We played whiffle ball after school, or baseball in our front yard — every single day. Or we’d switch it up and play football once in a while. But whether it was chess, or we’re doing chores, playing video games — everything we did, I was trying to beat him, he was trying to beat me. He never let me win anything; I had to earn it. Which I hated at the time.”
Ahlstrom competed in football, swimming and wrestling as well as baseball at North Eugene. Before a football game or a wrestling match, he said, Ahlstrom’s nerves had him bordering on nausea. Not so in baseball, where he was a first-team all-Midwestern League pick who went 5-2 as a senior with a 2.01 ERA.
“Pitching, you’re in control,” Ahlstrom said. “One thing I liked about wrestling was, it was on me — if I lose, I lost it, and if I win, I won it. That’s why I kind of fell in love with pitching. No matter what the offense is doing, I can put up zeros. I’m in control.”
After pitching for North Eugene, Ahlstrom enrolled at Chemeketa Community College for the fall of 2018. During the summer between his final high school season and starting at Chemeketa, Ahlstrom was offered the chance to pitch at a camp hosted by Oregon’s coaching staff. The Ducks’ head coach then, George Horton, told Ahlstrom afterward he was the most “projectable” guy in the camp — the player with the most room to improve, and thus potentially the most upside.
Ahlstrom was still headed for Chemeketa after that summer. But he was on Oregon’s radar.
Don’t tell any of his teammates, but Ahlstrom still is a little awestruck by that fact he’s playing for the team he rooted for as a kid. When he was a senior at North Eugene in 2017, Ahlstrom was a fan in the stands watching Ducks like Kenyon Yovan and Gabe Matthews. Now, those guys are his teammates.
“The question I get asked the most is, growing up in Eugene, what’s it like playing for the Ducks?” Ahlstrom said. “But I don’t really get tired of answering it. Because, I mean, it’s awesome.”
The ace of Oregon’s staff that spring of 2017 was David Peterson, who would be a first-round MLB draft pick the following summer. Ahlstrom watched with wonder as the hulking Peterson used his wipeout slider to earn first-team all-America acclaim.
Like Peterson, Ahlstrom was a left-handed pitcher. But the two otherwise didn’t have much in common. Peterson was 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, with electric stuff. Ahlstrom is 6-2, 176, and relies on command and competitiveness to dominate the opposition. He fits the mold of another of his mentors growing up, former North Eugene High and Oregon State pitcher Andrew Moore.
Ahlstrom remembers outings in high school when he tried to overpower the competition, times when he might notice a pro scout in the stands and get away from his usual formula. Those outings usually didn’t go well. So he learned at an early age to rely on his strengths.
“The reason I wasn’t getting recruited out of high schools was, I was undersized,” Ahlstrom said. “I didn’t have velocity behind my fastball. But I think that might have been an advantage to me, because I had to learn how to pitch. I had to learn how to get outs without overpowering guys. I had to learn how to locate, how to make hitters uncomfortable, how to cross-count.”
At North Eugene, Ahlstrom relied on a mix of fastball, curveball and changeup. To this day, he feels comfortable throwing any of those three pitches at any time. The most recent addition to his arsenal — at the urging of Chemeketa coach JJ Mascolo, and with refinement from former UO pitching coach Jason Dietrich and later Angier — has been a slider.
Over his last six starts entering Saturday, Ahlstrom is 6-0 with 47 strikeouts against just six walks. Not coincidentally, his slider in recent weeks has been every bit the weapon as his other three pitches.
“He’s just able to compete with four different pitches, and when you can do that at this level, it just presents a real problem for the other team,” said Angier, who also provided some mechanical tweaks that added a few miles per hour to Ahlstrom’s fastball, up from 88-90 to 91-93.
“And they’re all quality pitches. It’s not like, well, he’s got a good fastball and a good curveball, and the slider’s just okay, and the changeup’s, you know, a development pitch that he’s working on. No. They’re all legitimate pitches. That’s what separates him from everybody else.”
A month ago, Ahlstrom got into early trouble when the Ducks were hosting Washington. In just his second inning of work, the Huskies got a leadoff double followed by a single, putting runners on the corners with nobody out.
Did Ahlstrom experience fear that he was about to give up a big inning in a scoreless game against a rival? Disappointment at potentially letting his team down? Far from it: “My celebration’s gonna be sweet when I get out of this,” Ahlstrom recalled thinking in that moment. “When I get out of this with a zero, I’m gonna fire up the dugout and it’s gonna be sweet.”
Two strikeouts and a groundball to third later, Ahlstrom had his zero, the dugout was fired up, and it was indeed sweet. Ahlstrom ended up throwing seven shutout innings that day, as the Ducks beat the Huskies, 8-0.
A quote commonly attributed to Navy SEALs says that, when one is under pressure he doesn’t rise to the occasion, he sinks to the level of his training. By mastering his four-pitch arsenal and using pregame visualization to prepare himself for whatever an outing may bring, Ahlstrom has been able to meet the moment time and time again this spring. He’s learned to harness the competitive fire that sometimes crossed the line into being a detriment while at North Eugene, but which his Chemeketa coach Mascolo helped Ahlstrom rein in — just enough.
Against Oregon State on March 12, Ahlstrom had 10 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings. He beat the Beavers again a month later. Overall in eight career starts against ranked teams, including both this season against OSU, Ahlstrom has recorded seven quality starts.
The exception was a three-inning appearance to open this season against UC Santa Barbara. Ahlstrom pitched that game fresh off two weeks of quarantine due to COVID protocols, but didn’t allow a run in that appearance. Nor did he the next week against OSU, when Ahlstrom was still on a limited pitch count but was so efficient he went seven innings.
“You might figure, oh, we’ll get five innings out of him,” Angier said. “For him to go seven? He was just dealing.”
The next week Ahlstrom faced Arizona State, and his feel for his pitches was as bad as it’s been all season. He allowed three runs in the third inning, and left the game with the Ducks trailing 4-3. They’d go on to lose, 6-3. But because Ahlstrom is so competitive, he fought through his lack of command to still give the team seven innings that day.
“We didn’t have to deplete our bullpen trying to win that game on Friday,” Angier said. “And then we were able to win Saturday and Sunday. So I thought we won the series because of his makeup and toughness on Friday.”
Because of his knack for not wilting under pressure, Ahlstrom has earned the nickname “Big Game Rob.”
He doesn’t mind it. But it rubs Angier the wrong way a little bit. Because Ahlstrom doesn’t rise to the occasion when pressure is on; rather, he simply doesn’t wilt, as those who aren’t as mentally tough may do.
“He pitches good every game; so isn’t he just, like, good?” Angier said. “I don’t think he raises his level of play. He’s the same guy, every week.”
Before a couple of different games this year, Ahlstrom’s brother has texted him something along the lines of, “I need 10 punchouts today.” One was his first start of the year against Oregon State, when Ahlstrom set a new career-high with 10 strikeouts. Another was the Washington game, when Ahlstrom raised that career high to 11.
He’s someone who can be challenged in big moments, because he has proven so often that he won’t back down from them.
“That’s why I play baseball,” Ahlstrom said. “That’s why I’m here. Like, I always go out there and compete. But those rivalry games, those top-25 matchups, there’s a better energy in the stadium, dugout energy, fan energy. I just feed off that. Like, I get chills when I’m out there.”
Prior to this spring, UO coach Mark Wasikowski expressed cautious optimism that this could be a successful season for the Ducks. The X factor, he said, was whether the starting rotation, led by Ahlstrom, was up to the task of giving Oregon a chance to win each week through the rigors of the Pac-12 schedule.
As the Ducks prepared to take the field for this weekend’s regional, which they earned the right to host by weathering that daunting schedule, Ahlstrom reflected on those comments from his coach with a smile.
“I don’t think he says anything without a reason behind it,” Ahlstrom said. “That might have been, yeah, kind of a, ‘Prove me wrong.’ I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”