by Rob Moseley
If all goes well this spring, the Oregon baseball team will look back on this past weekend as a defining point in the season.
Ranked No. 9 in the country, the Ducks welcomed No. 5 Cal State Fullerton to PK Park and went away empty handed. The Titans finished off a three-game sweep Sunday, handing Oregon its second straight one-run loss, 5-4.
The two teams seemed miles apart Friday, when it took two ninth-inning runs for the Ducks (8-3) to salvage some dignity in a 9-2 defeat. The one-run games Saturday and Sunday were more encouraging, though also more frustrating. In each case, a big early inning for the Titans — helped by wildness from the UO starting pitcher — was the difference.
"We played well these last two days, we just need a little more to win, a couple breaks our way," said UO second baseman Aaron Payne, who had two opposite-field, RBI singles among his three hits Sunday.
"That's a really good team over there, and we proved we can play with the best of them. (We'll) keep working, and hopefully we're playing our best baseball at the end of the year."
Cal State Fullerton (7-3) got the leadoff man on base in all four innings pitched by UO starter Porter Clayton, and again in the ninth when the winning run came around off UO closer Jake Reed. In three of those five innings, the first hitter walked, after the Titans used a hit batter and two walks to spark their two-run inning off UO starter Matt Krook on Saturday.
After a single and a walk to open the third Sunday, Clayton fielded a comebacker that might have resulted in a double play. Instead he got the lead runner at third, and an RBI double followed. Had Clayton got the double play, an ensuing ground out would have ended the inning; instead it brought in a second run, and Fullerton would tack on a third two batters later.
"They took it Friday and just thumped us; we gave away some things, but it wasn't the determining factor in the game," UO coach George Horton said. "Yesterday and today, it was just a case of us not throwing the ball over the plate. In the Pac-12, and if we're worthy enough to get in the playoffs, you can't give teams free baserunners."
Sunday was different from the start, as Payne opened the bottom of the first by reaching on a three-base error and scored to give Oregon its first lead of the series. Kyle Garlick doubled and scored in the second for a 2-0 lead, and Payne singled in Connor Hofmann in the fifth to tie it at 3-3 after Fullerton's big third inning off Clayton.
Horton said he'll watch Jeff Gold's start Tuesday against Seattle in PK Park at 6 p.m. before determining whether Clayton, Gold or someone else gets the ball behind Tommy Thorpe and Krook in a three-game series with visiting Ohio State starting Friday.
One of Sunday's bright spots, UO reliever Stephen Nogosek, dominated the Titans for three innings before giving up a go-ahead homer to cleanup hitter J.D. Davis in the seventh. The Titans manufactured a run off Reed in the ninth for a 5-3 lead; Oregon, meanwhile, struck out nine times in the final four innings.
"They have a great staff, and I thought we had quality at-bats," Garlick said. "Just, they had more timely hitting than us this series. I think that's what we lacked."
An exception was Payne, who served a single into left field in the ninth that scored Jack Kruger with the game's final run. The UO leadoff hitter had an on-base average of .405 as a sophomore in 2012, saw it drop to .368 last spring but is now up to .417 after a hot start to 2014.
"I feel a lot better," Payne said. "I'm seeing the ball better; (also) stronger and healthier than I was last year, and I think that's helping. Getting on base more, which is always helpful with the bats we have in this lineup."
Those bats weren't quite consistent enough against the Titans this weekend, just as the UO pitching staff had a few too many breakdowns. Those are mistakes the Ducks hope to remedy in order to achieve their goal of playing in the College World Series.
"One of my favorite quotes is a (Vince) Lombardi quote," Horton said. "'The real glory is getting knocked to your knees and then coming back.' We got knocked to our knees. …
"I don't think we're a crummy team; I think they're ahead of us in some areas. … I think we're a good baseball team."
One that hopes to be even better come May and June, thanks in part to experiences such as the one Oregon got this weekend against Cal State Fullerton.