After stumbling through the first two games against #2 Vanderbilt, Oregon finally found a way to push some runs across against the stingy Commodore pitching staff. While the SEC contenders brought plenty of Oregon’s flaws into the limelight over the weekend, the Ducks (11-5) were able to storm back from a 5-2 deficit to hand Vanderbilt (15-2) its second loss of the season by a score of 7-5.
Unlike the first two games of the series, in which the Vanderbilt starters mowed down Oregon’s offense without much resistance, Oregon finally found a way to work some quality at bats, and put themselves in plenty of great scoring positions. That doesn’t mean that there was some astronomical improvement from the Oregon hitters, as Oregon still stranded seven batters on base, but there were some signs of the small steps the Ducks took this weekend. The Ducks were able to score some early runs against Vanderbilt’s starting pitcher, Phillip Pfeifer, but were shut down by Pfeifer in the middle innings. However, Oregon avoided hitting into 1-2-3 innings (6 in game one, 2 in game two, 2 in game three), and avoided getting out early in the count (75% of Oregon’s at bats were four pitches or longer).
In the third inning with the score tied at one, Aaron Payne worked a one-out walk, and with Ryon Healy following him in the batting order, the Ducks were suddenly threatening again. Unfortunately, the bad omens from the previous two games resurfaced as Payne was promptly caught stealing for the second out before Healy even had a real chance to dial in to his at bat. Of course, Healy went on to double to deep centerfield, a ball that would have easily scored Payne had he still been on base. Clean-up man brett Thomas came through with one of the first big hits Oregon had all weekend, bringing Healy home with an RBI single to give Oregon a 2-1 lead. With a bit better execution, Oregon would have led 3-1 in the second.
At first, it didn’t seem as if the missed opportunity in the third would come back to bite the Ducks. That is because Oregon’s starting pitcher, Cole Irvin, was really feeling it in the early innings. Starting with a strikeout to end the first, the freshman retired ten consecutive batters in dominant fashion. In the fifth, however, two excellent pitches were turned around in even more impressive fashion by the bottom of the Vanderbilt lineup. Back to back doubles on near perfect pitches tied the game up at 2-2. The Commodores then executed a sacrifice bunt to move a runner to third with one out, then Vanderbilt’s talented leadoff hitter hit a sacrifice fly to left field, giving Vandy a 3-2 lead.
Irvin would leave the game after allowing a fourth run in the sixth and conceding a walk in the eighth inning. His final line read 7.1 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 5Ks leaving his ERA at a solid 3.19 on the season. Jimmie Sherfy relieved Irvin in the eighth inning, but allowed his first run of the season, giving Vanderbilt a 5-2 lead as the game headed to the bottom half of the eighth.
Now we’ve already seen some whacky things out of this Oregon team this season, and more strange happenings continued on Sunday afternoon. The top of the Oregon lineup was due up, as Aaron Payne led the inning off, and was immediately hit by a pitch. Healy followed Payne with a first-pitch ground ball to short. Payne was forced out on the throw, but Healy was able to reach on a fielder’s choice to avoid the double play. Brett Thomas then reached base after four straight balls to bring the tying run to the plate.
Following the walk, Vanderbilt’s starter was relieved by Carson Fulmer. Shaun Chase was then called up out of the dugout to face the new pitcher. Although Chase’s batting average is just above the Mendoza line, the catcher was able to work a nine pitch at bat before striking out. While the crowd started to disperse with the Oregon chances dwindling by the second, Chase’s long at bat might have rattled Fulmer, who proceeded to plunk Ryan Hambright on the very next pitch to load the bases with two outs.
The inning dragged on even longer as Fulmer was yanked after hitting Hambright. Jared Miller became the second reliever to make an appearance as he tried to strand the bases loaded against Tyler Baumgartner. After missing the strike zone with his first pitch, Miller hurled a pitch into the turf, and watched the ball ricochet off his catcher Spencer Navin and roll all the way to the backstop. Healy dashed from third and scored easily. Thomas and Hambright both advanced as well as the deficit narrowed to 5-3.
Baumgartner then worked another walk to load the bases yet again. Steven Rice immediately replaced Miller following the walk. Facing Steven Packard, Rice would get to a 1-2 count before missing on two consecutive pitches to push the count full. The payoff pitch was met by Packard’s bat, but immediately chopped into the ground and dribbled to the third baseman.
It seemed to be a fairly routine ground ball, but Vanderbilt’s third baseman Vince Conde threw the ball about six feet above his first baseman’s outstretched glove. The error allowed Thomas and Hambright to score easily to tie the game at 5-5 while Baumgartner and Packard moved up to scoring position.
After blowing the lead, Rice was relieved by sidearmer Brian Miller, who the Ducks faced just a day before. Facing Altobelli with two away, Miller settled in with a quick 0-2 count. Altobelli then waited out three balls to fill the count. With the crowd reaching a fever pitch, Altobelli battled Miller into walking him to load the bases for a third time. Keep in mind Oregon hadn’t even gotten a hit in the eighth inning yet.
As the lineup turned over, Scott Heineman delivered on a 2-1 fastball. The leadoff man’s two-out 2 RBI single to left field gave Oregon a 7-5 lead in dramatic fashion. The inning ened with five runs scored, five free runners allowed, and just one hit. That, my friends, is smallest small ball a team can play.
Sherfy (1-0) tagged on a few more strikeouts to earn his first win of the season in the top of the ninth.
So Oregon is now 2-4 against elite teams, with two morale boosting wins on two consecutive Sundays. After the game, Brett Thomas, who led the Ducks with three QABs on Sunday was asked if this win could be a turning point in a so-so start to the season. Thomas replied, “I hope.”
That’s all we can do: hope. As Pac-12 season looms around the corner, Duck fans are hoping and praying for some more offense out of this Oregon baseball team.