On the diamond, rivals are far apart
EUGENE — Nothing was more indicative of the opposite directions in which the baseball programs at Oregon and Oregon State are headed than the atmosphere in the Civil War series finale Saturday night at PK Park.
With chants of "Let's go, Beavers!" ringing through the stadium, followers of the nation's No. 1-ranked team turned in what amounted as a home game for the visitors, whose 1-0 victory secured a three-game Pac-12 series sweep.
To add insult to insult, Oregon State clinched its fifth conference title since 2005 in the middle game of the series on a night when OSU coach Pat Casey earned his 1,000th career coaching win.
The Beavers, riding an eight-game win streak, are 41-4 overall and 24-3 in conference play. The Ducks, who have lost six in a row, are 26-21 and 9-15.
Since Oregon restored its baseball program in 2009, the rivals have met five times each season, alternating a three-game Pac-12 series between Corvallis and Eugene while playing two nonleague games at the other site each year. With OSU's 4-1 victory at Corvallis on May 2 — the other scheduled game was rained out — the Beavers went 4-0 against the Ducks, the first time one of the teams hasn't beaten the other at least once in a season.
All of the Civil War games this season were competitive, but Oregon — which managed six runs in the four contests — was never able to generate enough offense to win.
After Saturday's loss, UO coach George Horton was generous with praise of his adversaries.
"This is the best pitching staff in the nation, so I can't complain about my guys not hitting," Horton said. "Big-leaguers don't hit off Clayton Kershaw or (Madison) Bumgarner, and in the college version, that's what those guys have become for us.
"(The Beavers') pitching and defense is spectacular. It is actually a thing of beauty to watch them orchestrate the infield with that range and coverage. Their infielders are on top of it. It makes it tough to score runs unless you get some freebies and errors, and they don't give you much of that."
When a reporter mentioned that the Ducks had opportunities to the end to win on Friday (a 5-4 loss) and Saturday, suggesting the possibility of some sort of moral victory, the coach demurred.
"No," Horton said. "Whether you lose by 10 or 1, we got swept. We're all disappointed in that. The glimmer of hope is that for a lot of innings, we played pretty well — just not well enough to win, and that's the bottom line. That's why they keep score."
When asked if his players had grown frustrated, Horton nodded.
"Oh yeah — the coaching staff, too," he said. "I'm out of speeches. I've tried different angles. Today's (pre-game) talk was actually about how proud I was of them (Friday) night. (The UO players) could have folded their tent. It's been a tough stretch. They put themselves in position to win.
"Our guys have that burning desire to win. (But) no matter how much you want something, you need to train for those (moments). You can wish and want all you want, but you better have the training to outplay a great team like the Beavers. We weren't up to that task, unfortunately."
The "training" reference seemed to point the finger at Horton and his coaching staff — and there have been plenty of them pointed in that direction this spring at the coach who declared upon his hiring in 2008 he intended to make people forget where Corvallis is.
At the start of each season, Horton — who won a national championship at Cal State Fullerton in 2003 — has mentioned a College World Series berth as his team's goal. The Ducks came close in 2012 but have never gotten to Omaha.
Horton's overall record at Oregon is good — 316-216 — but his Pac-12 mark is 126-129. Horton's UO teams have always featured strong pitching staffs but weak hitting units, with small ball and sacrifice bunts the norm rather than the exception.
There has been disgruntlement among Oregon fans over the failure not only to get to Omaha but to keep up with the Beavers, and it has grown this season. Horton, who turns 64 in October, is in the final year of a contract extension he signed in 2012 that calls for him to make a guaranteed $500,000 annually, plus incentives that could raise the ante to $800,000.
Casey, 59, is being paid $800,000 in base salary this season on a contract that runs through 2022. Oregon State fans are thrilled he has turned down offers to run such programs as Notre Dame and Texas to remain in Corvallis and oversee one of the nation's premier teams over the last 12 years. He's a lock to be named conference coach of the year for the fifth time since 2005, and his Beavers seem headed for their fifth CWS appearance over that time span, with a chance to claim their third national crown.
Earlier in the season, Casey notched his 800th career victory while at Oregon State. He currently
stands No. 8 on the Pac-12 career coaching list at 830-444-5. With two more wins in this weekend's final Pac-12 series against Washington State beginning Friday at Goss Stadium, Casey will pass Frank Sanchet, who was 831-283-8 at Arizona from 1950-72.
Casey's record through 23 years at OSU and seven at George Fox now stands at 1,001-553, which he said is a reflection of the coaches and players he has worked with through three decades.
"When that number (1,000) was brought to my attention, it made me think of the good times I've had at both George Fox and Oregon State," Casey said. "I think about players. I think about situations. I think about games. The number is not a big deal to me, but it is from the standpoint that I appreciate how I've been given the opportunity to do this, and how I appreciate the players who stay in touch with me, and the kind of men they have become.
"Those things are synonymous with that number. When I hear from people who played for me 20 or 25 years ago, that's really cool to me. Good things have happened over the last 30 years for a lot of guys, and for me as well."
Casey quickly points to his current staff — chief assistant Pat Bailey, third-base coach Andy Jenkins, pitching coach Nate Yeskie, undergraduate assistants Kavin Keyes, Ryan Ortiz and Andy Peterson, director of operations Ron Northcutt, director of player development Tyler Graham and assistant coordinator of camps Jake Rodriguez. Jenkins, Keyes, Ortiz, Peterson, Graham and Rodriguez all played for Casey at Oregon State.
"I say it all the time," Casey said. "One person gets a lot of credit for the accumulation of what a lot of people do. My staff is outstanding. They're off-the-charts good. We love working with each other. Guys understand what we need to do to succeed. It makes it enjoyable to go to work every day."
Casey's current team may be his best yet. Oregon State could achieve the top Pac-12 record since the league went to a 30-game conference schedule in 2012. The best mark since then was 24-6 by OSU in 2013. The Beavers won the league with a 19-5 mark in 2005. No team has lost fewer league games since a united conference began in 1999.
This year's Beavers are not always a dominating team — they're 11-1 in one-run games — but they have produced enough clutch hitting to go with their terrific pitching and defense to pull out wins at an eye-popping rate.
With the Pac-12 championship already clinched and eight regular-season games remaining — beginning with a Tuesday date at Keizer against Portland — Casey must juggle the opportunity to get some rest for his regulars with keeping the Beavers on pace for a national No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That would give them home-field advantage in regional and super regional tournaments.
"You set goals at the start of the season," he said. "One goal was to win our conference. We've done that. Another goal is to be a national seed. There's a tightrope act you have to walk. We have to keep winning games, but if I feel like somebody needs some time off — to keep guys from getting into high pitch counts, or maybe having guys play half a game — there's not a game left in which I wouldn't consider that.
"But our guys are gamers. They want to play every time out. I have to figure out what's best and make good decisions."
The Beavers got a scare when second baseman Nick Madrigal and first baseman KJ Harrison suffered injuries Saturday at Eugene. Madrigal was hit on the back of the left hand by a pitch in the ninth inning but remained in the game. X-rays proved negative. Harrison sprained an ankle sliding into second base in the fifth inning and left the game. The injury is not expected to be serious. Both could miss Tuesday's game against the Pilots, but the hope is neither will be out for long.
The Beavers have done a great job of maintaining focus game to game this season. Part of that comes from the memory of being left out of last year's postseason despite a record (35-19 overall, 16-14 to tie for third place in the Pac-12) that would have indicated otherwise.
"Last year, we got snubbed from the playoffs," junior pitcher Jake Thompson said. "This year, we want to take every game like it's going to be our last. Even though we've clinched a spot (in the NCAA tournament), we're going to go out there and compete as well as we can every time out."
Oregon, meanwhile, is in a deep hole with eight games remaining — nonconference games with Loyola Marymount and Cal Riverside and Pac-12 series against Southern Cal (on the road) and UCLA (at home).
The Ducks' national RPI is No. 76. They can move up with wins over Loyola (52 RPI), UCLA (58), USC (101) and Riverside (146). An 8-0 finish — which seems unlikely — would get the Ducks to 34-21 overall and 15-15 in Pac-12 play.
"If we run the table, we'll finish .500 in conference," Horton said. "That will be one of our objectives and goals. We have six conference games (left), and we're going to try to win all of them. Easier said than done.
"What we won't do, and I won't allow (the players) to do, is quit. We're not going to roll over. Even if we knew for sure we weren't going to have a shot at the playoffs — we're beyond the outside edge at this point — Coach Horton is never going to have a team roll over and quit. Even the momentum that we could create might carry over into next season."
That brings up the question: Will Horton be around for next season?
That will play out in the coming weeks.