After only managing two hits in a 3-2 win against South Dakota State Friday night, the Oregon Ducks needed their bats to come alive against the ace of the Rice Owls' pitching staff on Saturday.
Instead, Rice's first-inning run proved enough as Owls starter Jordan Stephens struck out 11 in a two-hit shutout as Rice blanked the Ducks 1-0 and put the Ducks in a win-or-go-home situation for the rest of the regional
"I think if you handicapped tonight's game, you'd probably think it'd be a low-scoring game," Oregon head coach George Horton said. "It came down to one or two crucial spots; we didn't have a whole lot of spots. Jordan Stephens was tremendous, as advertised, equally as impressive as Somsen last night."
Known for playing small ball, Oregon looked at times like they were trying to hit with golf clubs against Stephens instead of bats. Through two games of the Eugene Regional, the Ducks are batting .075 as a team (4/53) and didn't advance a runner past second against the Owls.
"Well, we're not the greatest hitting team, and we're dinged up," Horton said of his team's struggles. "We've got some guys in there giving us everything they have, and just getting a lot of hits is not necessarily the strength of our team, and hasn't been all year."
After Rice scored a run on third baseman Shane Hoelscher's double in the first inning, Oregon sophomore Tommy Thorpe kept his team close, allowing only the single run over seven innings while striking out four.
Horton said after the game that he felt Thorpe was a warrior on the mound, dodging bullets and keeping his team in the game after an early miscue.
"Tommy I thought did a fine job," Horton said. "He probably made a mistake to the lead off hitter, left the ball out over the plate, kid did a good job of getting inside of it. They executed, their three-hole hitter hit a pretty quality pitch, and that was the story of the game."
Against Stephens, who came into the game sporting a 2.70 ERA, the Ducks had trouble even making contact. Star first baseman Ryon Healy struck out while falling to his knees in the fourth, then hit his first bunt-single of the season in his next at bat.
Oregon only advanced runners to second in the sixth and seventh innings, and never proved much of a threat for Stephens on the mound.
"It's still sinking in," Stephens said. "It's a really good feeling obviously. Another complete game, but this one a lot bigger – biggest game of my life so far, against a really good team."
After the loss, the Ducks will return to PK Park for an elimination game at noon against San Francisco, with the winner moving on to play Rice at four P.M. that afternoon. If Oregon were to win both games Sunday, they would play Rice in a winner-take-all situation Monday evening.
Freshman Cole Irvin will take the hill for Oregon against the Dons Sunday afternoon, but beyond that, the pitching situation is a tough one for Horton.
Long relievers Christian Jones (recovery from Tommy John Surgery), Brando Tessar, and Jeff Gold have barely pitched this season, meaning Horton will need to be creative regarding who's on the mound the rest of the weekend.
Regardless of the road ahead, Horton remained confident in his team after the loss, and said he looked forward to the challenges ahead.
"If we're going to get this done, we've got a lot of work to do," Horton said. "That requires at least 18 more innings, but I'll tell you what, when I get back to my team...just knowing my team the way I know them...I'm personally looking forward to seeing my group of warriors get after that challenge."