May 21, 2016
by Rob Moseley
Photo: Eric Evans
EUGENE, Ore. — In the spring of 2016, Oregon spent its softball season bashing through the competition.
The Ducks entered postseason play atop the nation in slugging percentage at .640, and smashed a school-record 92 home runs while winning their fourth straight Pac-12 title. Their No. 7 hitter for much of the spring, Gwen Svekis, had a dozen homers to rank 10th in the Pac-12, but only fourth on her own team.
So what did UO coach Mike White do earlier this week, on the eve of NCAA Regionals? Why, he urged the Ducks to spurn their power-hitting identity for a grittier approach he knew would be necessary as spring turns to summer.
“The pitchers are way better now, because it’s the postseason,” UO senior outfielder Koral Costa said. “As on offense we worked on moving runners over, getting bunts down, shooting gaps.”
The results of those efforts sparkled Friday. The No. 5 Ducks opened regionals by run-ruling Fordham 8-0 in five innings before 2,183 in PK Park — all without the benefit of a single home run. Oregon used shutout pitching from freshman groundball specialist Megan Kleist, spectacular defense and top-to-bottom production at the plate in moving on to a winner’s bracket matchup against Baylor on Saturday at 2 p.m.
“I think it’s probably the most prepared we’ve been for a regional opening game,” said White, whose offense pounded out 14 hits by 10 players.
That’s saying something for a program that is now 19-0 in NCAA Regional play under White. In 18 previous regional games, the Ducks had two run-rule wins and six shutouts. Friday, they got both.
UO ace Cheridan Hawkins has been resurgent of late, but White kept her in reserve Friday, with a potential matchup against Baylor looming. So he turned to the freshman Kleist (17-5), whose precocious pitching helped steady the Ducks while Hawkins battled to find her rhythm early this season.
Carrying the Ducks during that stretch served Kleist well Friday, when it was time to enter the postseason spotlight.
“I definitely think so,” Kleist said. “It makes these kinds of situations seem not to big. I think it’s helped me a lot.”
Kleist struck out just one batter Friday, and pitched around six hits over five innings. She did so with help from some sterling defense, most notably in her final inning of work.
The top of the fifth began with Oregon ahead 6-0. The inning opened with a hot shot that UO third baseman Jenna Lilley snared — in her first game since ditching a protective mask worn in the wake of a pitch Lilley took the face at midseason.
Two hits followed, prompting a mound visit by White. To that point, Kleist had recorded 13 outs, none of which got out of the infield. One more ground ball, White told her, and she could be out of the inning.
“She stuck to her game plan, threw a nice inside pitch, jammed (the batter) up and got the double play,” White said. “We’re working really hard on controlling the controllables, and that was one example.”
The groundball was handled deftly by shortstop Nikki Udria, the double play turned swiftly by second baseman Lauren Lindvall. Their work stood in contrast to that of the Fordham defense, which was in position to make some similar plays, but didn’t quite execute.
The bottom of the fifth began with a flyball to deep left by Janelle Lindvall. The outfielder got a glove on the ball, but couldn’t secure it. Lauren Lindvall followed with a short pop fly in the infield, on which a defender tried to make a diving play but couldn’t finish. Those two baserunners turned into the two runs that ended the game when they crossed the plate later in the inning.
The Ducks then quickly turned their attention to Baylor, and ace Heather Sterns. She also was held in reserve Friday, as the Bears beat Long Beach State, and brings a 1.91 ERA into Saturday afternoon.
“I think we’re prepared; we’ve been preparing for her all week,” White said. “They have very talented athletes. They’ve got good speed, good power. It should be a good matchup.”
The question for Oregon’s future opponents will be, are they prepared? The Ducks unveiled a new offensive approach Friday to open NCAA Regional play, and for the first game at least, the results were scary good.