With the Oregon baseball team preparing to host their first postseason games since 1954 and the Oregon softball team set to play in the Women’s College World Series for the first time in 23 years, I imagine baseball coach George Horton envies his counterpart, softball coach Mike White. See, while Horton stresses over his starting rotation and bullpen, plans for every contingency—For example, who starts on Monday night if this Regional goes five games?—White will do what he’s done all season long: give the ball to junior pitcher Jessica Moore and hope she can keep carrying the Ducks.
Make no mistake, it’s not like Moore is winning games by herself. During their six-game postseason run, the Ducks have been great on offense. But when it comes to pitching, it’s been more Moore. Oregon has played 42 innings through the Eugene Regional and Austin Super Regional, and Moore has been in the circle for an astounding 41 of those frames. On Saturday in Austin, Texas, with their season in the balance, Moore pitched 15 innings over the course of a doubleheader. It was as gutsy a performance as you’ll see in any sport on any level, and it provided a dose of redemption for Moore, who had been zero-for-five in previous Super Regional games.
In college baseball, however, the playoffs are hell on a pitching staff. If things go well, the Ducks will play three games in three days. In that scenario, you roll out your top three guys, get seven or eight innings out of them, bring in Jimmie Sherfy to close things out, and get ready for the Super Regional. The only question is do you pitch your ace in the opener against (theoretically) the worst team in the Regional, or save him for game two and a (theoretically) better opponent? I’m no baseball expert, and I certainly haven’t won a College World Series like Coach Horton, but I think you lead with your ace and go from there. Dropping Friday’s opener makes for a brutal path to the Super Regional.
If the Ducks slip-up once, they’ll be facing five games in four days, including a Sunday doubleheader. Oh, and did I mention they’d spend the weekend playing win-or-go-home games every time they take the field? By Sunday afternoon, you find yourself in a war of attrition, making moves you never dreamed of. (As a Red Sox fan I always think of Jason Varitek catching Tim Wakefield in an extra innings game in the 2004 ALCS. Every pitch was an adventure.)
The baseball season is (mostly) weekend after weekend of three-game series against the same opponent. The Ducks (and everyone else in the postseason) are at their best playing Friday-Saturday-Sunday, with no variables in the pitching rotation. Only one of the four teams in the Eugene Regional will get to Sunday unscathed, so it will be fascinating to watch what the other three teams do to survive that first loss. And if nobody goes 3-for-3 and ends this thing on Sunday afternoon, well, Monday night will be fascinating theater.
Makes you wonder if George Horton might ask to borrow Mike White’s ace for one night.