The Oregon Ducks (44-6, swept the second ranked Florida State Seminoles to close out their regular season home schedule at Jane Sanders Stadium.
With an opportunity to make the most of a bye week in Pac-12 play, the Ducks couldn’t have scripted the weekend any better.
In a concession to travel schedule the series was played as a double header on Saturday and the finale on Sunday.
Game one saw the Ducks bring the lumber. But it was sophomore pitcher Megan Kleist who stole the spotlight, limiting one of the nation’s most potent offenses to a pair of hits, six strikeouts and a walk in the 11-0 blanking.
A pair of five run innings did in the Seminoles, a Gwen Svekis 2-run home run highlighting the fireworks. Four Florida State errors made life a little easier for the Ducks as well but Kleist was in control throughout in improving her season record to 17-3.
Seminole ace Jessica Burroughs smothered the Oregon offense for the first five innings of game two. And except for a run in the second inning, Oregon freshman Maggie Balint matched her out for out. That single run was looming large until Shannon Rhodes singled to start the sixth and scored on Mia Camuso’s double to right, knotting the score at one.
Jenny Lilley’s double gave the Ducks the lead and a throwing error added an insurance run.
In picking up the win, Balint struck out seven, allowed three hits and walked three.
Much the same script played out in Sunday’s wrap-up. Again with Burroughs in the circle protecting a one run lead for the Seminole, the Ducks were running out of at bats when Rhodes singled with one out in the fifth – the Ducks first hit of the day – then stole second. Oregon starting pitcher Miranda Elish singled up the middle, scoring Rhodes.
As had Balint in Saturday’s nightcap, with the exception of a second inning unearned run, Elish matched Burroughs out for out, scattering six hits and a walk over seven full innings.
After Kleist relieved Elish to open the eighth but surrendered two quick base hits putting runners on second and third, Oregon head coach Mike White summoned Balint from the bullpen.
With a strikeout on a 2-2 pitch, an out at the plate on a fielder’s choice and a fly out to left field, Balint got the Ducks off the hook unharmed.
“I love having runners on and no count and no out…. that’s why I pitch … that’s better than starting for me … going out there, that is my favorite thing to do, so I was super excited to be put in my position”, she said afterwards.
After striking out her first two batters in the ninth, Balint was back in the deep stew when she hit a batter who then stole second and moved to third on a throwing error. Her fourth strike out ended the threat and sealed what would become her 19th victory of the season.
Danica Mercado – one of three seniors recognized in pregame ceremonies – opened the home half of the ninth with double to the left-centerfield gap. Maddie Bishop executed a textbook sacrifice bunt, moving Mercado to third. When Svekis lofted an 0-1 pitch to center, Mercado slid under the tag at the plate to give the Ducks the sweep.
“She was beating me up with that curve ball all day, I was struggling with it,” said Svekis. “I was telling myself, ‘I’m hitting something to the right side, I don’t care. I’m absolutely tucking my shoulder and getting on top of this pitch and I’m hitting it to the right side.’”
Whether to center or to right, it was deep enough to get the winning run to the plate.
For some reason I thought we were a little flat with the bats,” said White. “But we did what we had to do at the end — that was some great, pressure softball. It was good to see us come through in those big situations.”
The gray lining in that silver cloud is that just prior to game time, Arizona defeated UCLA 7-2 to end any hopes of a fifth straight conference crown for the Ducks.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t think we really deserved to win the Pac-12 championship,” said White. “We lost three series to probably the top three teams. You can’t do that. We beat the teams we should beat, I suppose we took care of business that way but we didn’t win the big ones and we had our opportunities.”
Still the sweep of the second ranked Seminoles – who knocked off top-ranked Florida before heading to Eugene – should push the Ducks well into the top eight of the RPI rankings whatever may transpire next weekend when Oregon wraps up conference play at Stanford. That would mean the Ducks will be in position to host a regional series and should they advance host the super regional as well.
~ Rick Morgan