Its been a season of dreams for Oregon baseball.
Coming off a disappointing season last year, our hopes were modest: that the Ducks could find a way to not blow leads late, and manage to sneak into a regional. We figured that the hitting had to improve, but that a pitching staff that had lost Tyler Anderson to the draft and Christian Jones to injury had to get somewhat worse. The hitting has been about what we expected--which is better, but still not good. Outside of Aaron Jones and Ryon Healy, there's not a lot in the lineup that strikes fear into opposing teams. Batting .266 with 27 homers as a team is the definition of meh, the key being that meh is a whole lot better than last season.
But that pitching.
Nobody could see that a soft tossing righty in Alex Keudell, a guy who struggles to break 86mph on his fastball, would become the best pitcher in the conference, with ten wins and a sparklng 1.80 ERA and a WHIP of about 1. That a freshman in Jake Reed would win eight games as one of the better Saturday starters in the conference. Or that Brando Tessar and Jeff Gold would essentially make a formidable four-man starting rotation on a team that lost numerous starters to elbow injuries before the season even started.
But the biggest surprise of all has been Jimmie Sherfy, who emerged from complete obscurity to become one of the most dominant closers in the sport. With a whopping 81 strikeouts in 52 innings, nobody touches the guy, and the blown leads that haunted Oregon last season have yet to make an appearance.
All this puts Oregon in a pretty incredible position. Going into the final weekend of the season, the Ducks have a one game lead on Arizona for the conference championship. They have the #2 RPI in the country after winning road series at Stanford, Arizona, and UCLA. They've had clean sweeps of Cal, Arizona State, USC, and Vanderbilt. Its been a brutal schedule, and Oregon baseball has come out with flying colors. They are almost guaranteed to host not just a regional, but a super-regional at this point. They have to be considered legitimate national championship contenders. That's all nice, but you don't get to put a pennant in your park for hosting a super-regional.
Oregon heads to Corvallis this weekend, while Arizona takes on Arizona State at home. The magic number to clinch is two. Any combination of two Oregon wins and Arizona losses means that Oregon is the Pac-12 Champions. If the Ducks win two out of three, they're the champs regardless. If the Ducks only win one, Arizona must sweep ASU to take the crown.
Oregon State will be motivated. Last season, the Beavers were ranked #6 in the country headed into the final weekend, and their hopes were buzzsawed by an Oregon squad with nothing to play for except pride as the Ducks swept them out of Eugene. You know Oregon State would love nothing more than to return the favor.
When Oregon started this little baseball experiment four seasons ago, there was uncertainty as to whether Oregon could truly compete at a high level. There is no doubt now.
In May of 2007, a world ago with ATQ in its infancy, I wrote a post that seemed a pipe dream, the idea that my favorite sport could be reinstated at the school I love. Five years later, we sit on the brink of a Pac-12 title and stand as a favorite to be playing in Omaha. There is one thing standing in the way, and its the team with the titles in the trophy case that would love nothing more than to squash what they have to see as an insurgency on their turf. I have no idea how this weekend is going to go, but I'm more excited for it than I have been for any sporting event in a long, long time.*
*does the Rose Bowl count as a long, long time ago?