by Rob Moseley
In the last week of the 2013 regular season, UCLA won a midweek game against NCAA Regional qualifier UC Santa Barbara, then stumbled through the final weekend of the regular season, dropping two of three to Stanford.
The Bruins, of course, went on to win 10 straight games in the postseason, sweeping their way to the NCAA title. So, for an Oregon team that upset No. 1 Oregon State last week before dropping two of three to California, there's reason to believe an extended postseason run remains possible.
The Ducks (42-18) found out Monday morning they will open the postseason Friday against Clemson (10 a.m. PT, ESPN3), in a regional hosted by Vanderbilt. Oregon qualified for Regionals for the third straight season, and the fourth time in five years.
"Yeah, we're limping a little bit, because we didn't get it done in the last series," UO coach George Horton said. "(But) even if we were 60-0, and the No. 1 seed like Oregon State is, everybody cleans the slate. There's 64 teams — everybody has an equal opportunity, and the team that can sustain that for the longest time is going to be national champion."
Oregon entered last week holding out hope for a chance to host Regionals. The losses to Cal torpedoed those hopes in Horton's mind, but when the 16 host sites were announced Sunday evening — and they included only two Western teams, OSU and Cal Poly — it was clear the Ducks were destined to hit the road all along.
Not even the Pac-12 runner-up, Washington, was granted a home series for Regionals.
"I like the fact we're in the draw, how about that?" Horton offered.
That draw is an intriguing one on a couple of fronts, based on comments during ESPN's unveiling of the bracket by tournament selection committee chair Dennis Farrell, the Big West commissioner. Clemson was one of the last four teams to make the field of 64, Farrell said, while Vanderbilt was one of five teams considered for the final three national seeds.
The Commodores (41-18) weren't granted one of those coveted eight seeds. They will face Big East tournament champion Xavier (29-27) in their opening game of the Regional later Friday.
Clemson (36-23) will face Oregon for the first time ever; the Tigers hit .276 and had a 3.69 team ERA in the regular season, while the Ducks hit .259 with a 3.03 ERA. The Tigers reached the postseason for the 20th time in coach Jack Leggett's 21 seasons at the helm.
Oregon's bats were stymied by Cal left-hander Kyle Porter in a shutout on Friday, the second game of the series. The Ducks were then held hitless through four innings Saturday — for the third straight game — but broke out with a three-run fifth inning before losing.
The results were frustrating, but Horton felt Oregon's hitters battled well against Porter on Friday, and the Ducks thought they squared up a number of balls Saturday.
"I think you come into it with a little optimism," said infielder Mitchell Tolman, Oregon's leading hitter at .315. "Especially Saturday, it felt like balls were getting hit right at guys. You've got to continue with a positive approach; as soon as you get negative, you're going to go downhill."
Vanderbilt's Hawkins Field plays as more of a hitter's park than does Oregon's own PK Park. Several Ducks discovered that first-hand, after Oregon swept a three-game series with the Commodores there in 2012.
"Obviously they have a different pitching staff and everything, but I'm excited," said outfielder Kyle Garlick, who was 2-for-9 with a double in that series. "The ball travels a little bit better, they're going to have a good crowd, so it's going to be fun."
Second baseman Aaron Payne, catcher Shaun Chase and injured third baseman Scott Heineman also played in that 2012 series at Hawkins Field. On the mound, Jake Reed and Brando Tessar started and earned wins during the series, and current UO ace Tommy Thorpe had a scoreless relief appearance as a freshman.
Thorpe (10-4, 2.20) faces some uncertainty this week. Oregon's coaches were studying the bracket and matchups for the Regional before announcing pitching matchups; they figure to make a decision soon on Friday's starter against Clemson, and then set contingency plans based on the result of the two first-round games Friday.
Thorpe could go against Clemson, to get the Ducks off to a good start. Or he might be held back, for a potential matchup with the region's top seed, Vanderbilt, on Saturday.
"That's fine by me," Thorpe said. "Coach will let me know, and I'll adjust my routine a little for whatever they have set for me. It won't be a problem."
Thorpe has averaged 117 pitches in his last two outings, including his first career complete game to beat Cal on Thursday. So he'll benefit from the extended rest, possibly as long as nine days were he to be held back at Regionals until Saturday.
Other than Thorpe and Jeff Gold (10-2, 3.14), the Ducks have some uncertainty on the mound. Due to injuries to left-handed starters Cole Irvin and Matt Krook, Oregon's Sunday slot has been in flux much of the season; Tessar has struggled there the last few weeks.
That's a concern entering the double-elimination regional format, with the potential for five games in four days. At least four starters will be needed, and relievers Reed and Garrett Cleavinger could be called on several times if necessary.
"We're going to need some guys to step up," Horton said. "On paper our best chance is to get through it in three. (But that's) easier said than done."