by Rob Moseley
This time, A.J. Balta got all of it. And the Oregon baseball team left PK Park on a Sunday afternoon feeling much better about itself.
One week ago, Balta's potential walk-off home run was caught just short of the fence, ending a three-game sweep of the Ducks by Cal State Fullerton. Against Ohio State on Sunday, Balta's eighth-inning blast cleared the fence for a grand slam that capped No. 14 Oregon's 20-4 victory.
The victory gave the Ducks (12-4) two wins in three games with the Buckeyes (8-5), ended a 4-1 week for Oregon and put the demoralizing series with the Titans safely in the rearview mirror.
"I think Ohio State's personnel is pretty good," UO coach George Horton said. "I think they're going to be a contender in the Big Ten. They'll have to prove that, but last year we didn't win two out of three against anybody (of note in the nonconference season), and ended up a national No. 8 seed (into the postseason). We reminded our guys of that, and certainly if we're going to do anything in the Pac-12, we're going to have to beat a lot of teams that are significant. …
"So we challenged them, to see if they could get this two out of three against a team we might have awoken (Saturday) by not throwing strikes. And they accepted the challenge pretty good."
After three middling performances by Sunday starters to open the season, senior Jeff Gold (4-0) rose to the task when given his shot at the job against the Buckeyes. He went eight innings and allowed seven hits and three runs, with eight strikeouts and no walks; two of the runs came home on potential inning-ending double-play balls, makeable plays the Ducks didn't convert.
Gold's was the third straight solid start of the weekend. Staff ace Tommy Thorpe struck out a career-high 10 in seven scoreless innings Friday, and freshman phenom Matt Krook battled control issues to get through 5 1/3 while allowing one run Saturday. But the Ducks couldn't get anything in that game off Ohio State's Ryan Riga, so it was left to Gold to get Oregon a series win Sunday.
"It was cool, especially against this team — I had some demons to exorcise from the Rose Bowl my freshman year," said Gold, who attended the Oregon football team's postseason loss to the Buckeyes in 2010. "I threw four pitches for strikes in the first inning and was like, 'OK, everything seems good today.' Coach Horton called a great game, and we were able to mix speeds well."
Horton called Gold's start "spectacular," and said the performance made a decision on Oregon's Sunday starter for the Pac-12 opening series with USC in PK Park next week "a no-brainer."
"That was one of his sharpest outings," Horton said. "His fastball command was outstanding, and if we played a little better catch and get a couple double-play balls, he has an even better result."
Gold pitched through steady rain, regularly switching out baseballs to ensure a good grip. And he was able to pitch with the confidence of an early lead, as the Ducks put up seven runs in the third inning. Oregon's 20 runs were the most since 1979; the previous high since the program's reinstatement was 19 at Gonzaga in April 2010.
"We wanted them to leave with an impression we wanted to make," Balta said, explaining that "we want to be a team that's looked at as the toughest of the competition. And we want to be looked at as someone like, 'Oh man, we have to go play them?'"
The day got off to an auspicious start when leadoff hitter Aaron Payne reached third base in the first inning yet didn't score, for the second game in a row. But the Ducks ensured Sunday would be no repeat of Saturday's futility with a four-run second inning.
Each of those first two frames ended with cleanup hitter Mitchell Tolman making the last out. He got on track in a big way with a three-run double during the seven-run third, later adding a two-run single in the sixth and an RBI single in the eighth.
"My first two at-bats I felt really long with the swing," Tolman said. "(Hitting coach Mark Wasikowski) talked to me and just told me to stay short and do what I can do."
Tolman's last hit left the bases loaded for Balta two batters later. The freshman worked a 3-1 count, predicted something in the zone from Ohio State's all-American closer, Trace Dempsey, and lined it deep to right, into Oregon's bullpen.
"It was nice to finally square one up, get some revenge for the Fullerton almost walk-off," Balta said.
More than that, Balta's grand slam put an exclamation point on Oregon's bounceback week following the three-game sweep by the Titans. The Pac-12 schedule looms, and the Ducks will have to show similar mettle over what Horton is calling "a 30-game World Series."
"We talk about getting up off the deck," Horton said. "We felt pretty frustrated at not playing well last night, and we played well in a lot of areas today."