May 21, 2016
by Rob Moseley
Photo: Eric Evans
EUGENE, Ore. — A month ago, Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon’s two-time all-American pitcher, wasn’t even the ace of her own staff.
Mired in a bought of wildness, Hawkins started just one of three games against Arizona State in a series played April 22-24. In two appearances that weekend, the senior left-hander allowed four runs in four innings.
Who then, could possibly have expected what’s become of Hawkins since? Having fixed a mechanical flaw spotted by catcher Janelle Lindvall during a bullpen season the week after the ASU series, Hawkins has quite simply returned to being arguably the most dominant pitcher in the country.
Hawkins tossed a one-hit shutout of Baylor in a 6-0 victory for the No. 5 Ducks at Jane Sanders Stadium on Saturday, moving Oregon (46-8) into Sunday’s NCAA Regional final at 4 p.m. In her 49 2/3 innings since the ASU series, Hawkins has a 0.42 ERA, and eight wins in eight starts. She’s struck out 66 hitters over nine total appearances, and walked just four.
“There were definitely times I did not think there was gonna be a turning point,” Hawkins (22-3) said after dominating the Lady Bears on Saturday. “But it’s just about holding faith. I knew the coaches and my teammates held faith in me, and it was just kind of that one thing to turn the corner.”
Pitching in support of Oregon’s new-look, grind-out-runs offense, Hawkins set down the first 11 batters she faced. The 12th reached on an error, but Hawkins coolly retired the next hitter to end the inning. That sparked another run of eight straight set down, before Sarah Smith singled to center with one out in the seventh for the only hit by Baylor (44-13).
Smith faced Hawkins in the two games Oregon and Baylor split at a preseason tournament last spring. What Smith saw Saturday was a different pitcher.
“I always like to give credit where credit is due,” Smith said, adding that during her first at-bat Saturday she thought, “Wow, we haven’t faced a girl like that, a lefty who can really spin the ball.”
Baylor came into Saturday with a .323 team average, and scoring nearly six runs per game. Hawkins completely handcuffed the Lady Bears, using just 82 pitches. A month ago, she was averaging just four strikeouts per walk and hitting a batter every five innings; since then, she’s averaging nearly 17 strikeouts per walk, and hitting a batter every 10 innings.
“I’m still working; I still have things to get better at,” she said. “I just want to make an impact. That’s been my goal.”
The Lady Bears threw their own ace, Heather Sterns, who outdueled Hawkins last preseason. On Saturday, Stearns was no match for Oregon’s new offensive approach, spurning the power that fueled the Ducks in the regular season in favor of a small-ball style better suited to attack the elite pitching that will litter the postseason.
The Ducks had multiple baserunners in all but one inning, pounding out 12 hits and working three walks. They scored in every inning but the first — when they left the bases loaded, three of the 10 runners they stranded while still managing to score six times.
In a change from the previous four years, this UO softball squad hasn’t relied much on speed. The Ducks stole 45 bases in the regular season, their lowest total since 2010, and less than half the 91 they stole in 2015.
But on Saturday, Oregon’s speed was a difference maker. In the second inning, pinch runner Cherish Burks stole home for the Ducks’ first run, on a double steal. Baylor actually sniffed out the UO plan, with the shortstop not bothering to cover second before fielding a throw from the catcher and throwing back toward home plate. It didn’t matter.
“It’s good to know we can create that magic of old,” UO coach Mike White said.
In the third, another pinch runner, Sammie Puentes, stole second, took third on a sacrifice fly and scored when the throw to third got away. Again in the fourth, Alyssa Gillespie dropped a bunt in front of home and beat it out, before eventually coming around to score.
The Lady Bears ended up committing three errors, all on errant throws that contributed to Oregon runs.
“That’s what pressure does, and they’re a pressure offense,” Baylor coach Glenn Moore said.
The way Oregon’s ace was pitching didn’t make it any easier on the Lady Bears.
“We saw a Hawkins that was on her game tonight,” Moore said. “We had to bring our best stuff, and when you don’t against a team like Oregon, you’re going to pay the price. And we paid the price.”