EUGENE, Ore.—After Oregon turned in an uncharacteristically sloppy loss in Saturday's super regional opener against Kent State, Ducks coach George Horton promised that his team would come back Sunday and play a better game. If he knew his team as well as he thought he did, Horton insisted, the Ducks would respond with their backs against the wall.
And Horton knows his team.
Oregon found itself eight outs from elimination Sunday night, facing a two-run deficit with the bases empty in the seventh inning. But this group of plucky Ducks has made a habit of finding ways to win, even when victory seems like a daunting prospect.
Golden Flashes righthander Ryan Bores had held Oregon scoreless on two hits up until that point, but with one out in the seventh, the Ducks abruptly came to life. Ryon Healy's single up the middle got things started, and each of the next four batters reached safely, leading to three runs and propelling Oregon to a spirited 3-2 win.
Horton never expected anything less from this particular team.
"I've never told a team I love them as much as this group," Horton said. "That's what we talked about before the game—I cried. I'm getting old, and like (former NFL coach) Dick Vermeil used to do, I cry a lot more than I used to. But I cried and looked them in the eye and said, 'Hey, I realize that we're trying to go to the College World Series, which is a big deal. But I don't want to take the uniforms off.' I want to compete with these guys in June as long as I possibly can, that's how special this group is.
"We lift weights at 6:20 in the morning. We've had one athlete that's been five minutes late all year long. That's pretty spectacular. That's commitment, that's responsibility, that's accountability. We've got talented players. If we do move on, or even in the top 16, we probably lose the drafted player race, but I wouldn't trade my guys for anybody in the country."
Maybe Oregon isn't loaded with professional talent—indeed, just three Ducks were drafted last week, one of them in the 18th round and two others in the 27th. But Oregon is loaded with winning ballplayers, and they made enough winning plays Sunday to beat a Kent State team that had won each of its last 21 games.
Three errors killed the Ducks Saturday, but on Sunday Oregon played airtight, error-free defense. And the Ducks did not get discouraged by their inability to generate any offense for the first six innings against Bores, who faced just one batter over the minimum during that stretch, mostly by running his two-seamer in on the hands of righthanded hitters and occasionally mixing in an effective slider.
But Oregon freshman righty Jake Reed kept Oregon within striking range, allowing just two runs on five hits over 6 2/3 innings. Reed came out of the gate strong, working in the 90-92 mph range and striking out two of the game's first three hitters. His 77-78 slider and 81-82 mph changeup were both crisp, and he had little trouble with any Golden Flashes except for cleanup man George Roberts, who hit a solo homer in the second and an RBI double in the fourth, accounting for all of KSU's scoring.
After Roberts' fourth-inning double, T.J. Sutton singled to put runners on the corners with no outs. But then Reed wrested the momentum back, striking out the next two hitters, then issuing a walk and stranding the bases loaded with a groundout.
"That was a crucial inning—first and third, nobody out, and we get two strikeouts," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "You've got to put the ball in play there. That was a huge momentum shift."
After that, Reed settled into a nice rhythm, setting the stage for Oregon's comeback.
Horton knew what to expect from Reed, too.
"I guess the surprise would have been if he'd gone out there and caved into the pressure," Horton said. "He's had a couple outings where he admitted he was a little nervous, and I think he's learned from the experience of that. It didn't surprise me that he did as well as he did today."
When Bores suddenly started leaving balls up in the seventh, Oregon seized the opportunity. Brett Thomas followed Healy's one-out single with an RBI double, then scored on Ryan Hambright's RBI single two batters later to tie it. Then Brett Hambright gave Oregon the lead for good with a perfectly executed squeeze bunt.
Oregon's bullpen took it from there. Maybe the Ducks aren't stacked with premium 2012 draft picks, but they have a couple of very talented underclassmen in the bullpen in lefthander Tommy Thorpe and righty Jimmie Sherfy. Relievers who can miss bats make nice weapons in the late innings, and that duo excels at missing bats (Thrope has 48 strikeouts in 42 innings, while Sherfy has a staggering 91 strikeouts in 60 innings).
Thorpe, whose 79-80 slider eats up lefthanded hitters, was extended a little longer than usual Sunday, partly to conserve Sherfy as much as possible. After entering with two outs and a man aboard in the seventh, Thorpe retired five of the next six hitters, four of them via strikeouts.
But like Saturday's game, this one featured some ninth-inning drama.
Sutton led off the frame with a double down the right-field line, putting the tying run in scoring position with no outs. But Thorpe struck out the next hitter before handing off to Sherfy, who overpowered Sawyer Polen and Alex Miklos with his devastating power slurve to strand the runner at second and end the game.
"Like professional teams, when you can cover the last six to nine outs with quality, it's a good feeling," Horton said. "Our starters, whether it's Jake or anybody else, they trust that they can hand the ball to those guys, and I trust that I can hand the ball to those guys. It's a nice luxury."
Horton knows the game is in good hands when his bullpen inherits a late lead.
And knowing what to expect is a very comforting feeling for a coach.
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