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Ducks cruise to regional title
Horton's CWS goal just two victories from reality
EUGENE - George Horton arrived at Oregon four years ago with understandably grandiose plans.
After 11 years of national success at Cal State Fullerton, including the 2004 College World Series championship, Horton predicted a trip to Omaha for the Ducks, sooner rather than later.
Oregon is two victories away from that goal after taking care of business Sunday with an 8-1 trimming of Austin Peay for an NCAA regional title.
The 10th-ranked Ducks will play host to upstart Kent State - a surprise winner of the regional at Gary, Ind. - in a best-of-three super regional next weekend for the right to make the CWS's eight-team field.
'This is why I came up here,' Horton said. 'I don't want to sound boisterous or egotistical, but I hope this is the first of many (regional titles).
'Where I used to coach (Fullerton), I could look (recruits) in the eye and say, 'If you play for me, it'll be a good experience, you'll grow as a person and player and we're going to go to the College World Series.' '
Horton got to Omaha six times with the Titans, and it would be a major upset if his Ducks don't make it there this year by beating unranked Kent State, which is a regional champion for the first time in school history.
Oregon entered the weekend fourth in the national Rating Performance Index (RPI). Kent State was 64th, behind every Pac-12 team but Washington State and Utah.
The Ducks went 3-0 in their regional, starting with a 6-5 win over Austin Peay on Friday featuring a controversial call at the plate that went in favor of the hometown team.
'We wanted to prove Friday night wasn't a fluke,' said leftfielder Brett Thomas, who had two hits and three RBIs in Sunday's romp over the Governors.
Oregon had expected to face Horton's old team, No. 2 seed Fullerton, on Sunday, but Austin Peay took care of the Titans 3-0 earlier in the day in an elimination game.
'We set our pitching up to beat Fullerton two out of three, and (the Titans) thought they had to beat us two out of three,' Horton said. 'We were fortunate the first game (against Austin Peay) that we didn't mess that up.'
The Ducks had their way in the rematch with their opponent from Clarksville, Tenn., and the Ohio Valley Conference, thanks to Jake Reed's right arm along with patience and execution at the plate.
Reed, a 6-2, 190-pound freshman out of La Mesa, Calif., limited Austin Peay to two hits over seven innings and struck out a season-high eight batters.
'Good athletes, good people, step up at the right time, and Jake was dominating today,' Horton said.
Asked to compare Reed's performance with that of freshman hurlers he had coached at Fullerton in NCAA Tournament play, Horton said, 'It's on the short list of the most spectacular efforts ever.'
'He is a warrior,' the UO coach said. 'He did exactly what we asked him to do - take his electric stuff and just pound the low part of the strike zone. I told him, 'Jake, that's the first of many championship wins for you.' '
Reed (7-4) hadn't been sharp in his last two outings against Seattle and Oregon State.
'I had struggled in the last couple of starts with my command,' he said. 'I knew if I stayed down, I'd be able to get outs. The biggest thing for me today was getting back to square one and throwing strikes.'
Reed had the Governors guessing all day at the plate.
'These guys can swing their bats,' Austin Peay coach Gary McClure said. 'If you hold our team like (Reed) did today, I have to give him a lot of credit.'
'He's real sneaky,' Austin Peay second baseman Jordan Hankins said. 'He came at you 91, 92 (miles per hour), low three-quarter (arm) slot. He painted (the corners of the plate), and it snuck up on you.'
'He stayed away from us,' said third baseman Greg Bachman, who had two of the Governors' three hits. 'His fastball had good run on it today, and it's a sneaky 91. That means it gets on you really fast.
'He was locating every pitch, and then he'd bring a pretty good slider and locate that as well. Everything he had today was on.'
Even if the Governors were fresh, Reed might have been too much. As it was, playing their fourth game in a 48-hour period, 'they may have just run out of gas,' Horton said.
'We expended a lot of energy in the (Fullerton) game,' Bachman said. 'That took the wind out of our sails.'
Plus, McClure allowed, 'we didn't have maybe enough pitching left.'
No maybe about it.
Oregon, meanwhile, played its patented small-ball offensive game to perfection.
'Get (batters) on, get them moving, get them in,' Horton said.
Through seven innings, Oregon accumulated only six hits. But by then, the Ducks also had six walks and were hit five times by pitches (three by Aaron Payne in what had to be an NCAA Tournament record). They were 3 for 3 on sacrifice bunts, not including Payne's safety squeeze that plated a run in the fourth, the same frame in which they were successful on a pretty hit-and-run play.
'They executed the things they execute very well,' McClure said. 'They bunt, they move guys over, they put guys in motion. They didn't put a lot of hits on the board, but they don't have to (in order) to score runs because of the type of team they are.
'They played what I call 'West Coast baseball.' They run, they bunt-and-run, they hit-and-run, they put guys in motion. They'll bunt at any time. They'll show bunt a lot. They rely on pitching and defense.'
'Every time we play, it's not going to be perfect,' said Oregon senior catcher Brett Hambright, who delivered the first home run of his career, a two-run shot in the seventh. 'We do the little things well. It might not look like we blow out a team, but we execute to perfection. That's what coach (Horton) wants us to do.'
If Sunday's win was anti-climactic, it was also uncharacteristically one-sided for an Oregon victory.
'My vision was we were going to capture this championship with (closer) Jimmy Sherfy on the mound in a one-run victory,' Horton said. 'That would have been more apropros.
'I'm sure there will be another couple of one-run victories for the Ducks down the road, if we're successful. That's the way we play the game - inning by inning, pitch by pitch.'
The Ducks regrouped psychologically after last week's sweep by Oregon State in a regular season-ending three-game series that cost them the Pac-12 championship.
'We really didn't have to do too much,' Hambright said. The Beavers 'motivated us by sweeping us.
'This was another challenge for us. We pretty much erased that sweep. We didn't even think about it. We wanted to come out with renewed fire, and I think we did that this weekend.'
Horton is clearly emotionally connected to his players on this Oregon squad.
'These guys grind,' he said. 'I've never told a team before a season is over that I love them as much as I've told this team. And that's from the heart.
'The players have maximized their abilities. It's as good a group as I've ever been around. They trust the coaching staff. We trust them. They buy into what we ask them to do. It's magical right now. Hopefully we'll keep that going deep into June.'
All that stands between Oregon and the program's first CWS appearance since 1954 is two wins over Kent State next weekend.
Oregon football coach 'Chip Kelly texted me the other night and said, 'You're starting to do something special,' ' Horton said with a smile. 'I said, 'I'm just trying to keep up with you, big boy.' '
Baseball has a little catching up to do with football at Oregon. But the Ducks appear on their way.