OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike White demonstrated faith in his Oregon softball team leading up to the Women's College World Series. And did the Ducks ever justify it.
Pressured by their coach to get off to a hot start after recent slow starts in OKC, the UO bats came alive Thursday in record-setting fashion in the opening game of this year's WCWS. The Ducks set a school record for runs at Hall of Fame Stadium, outslugging Arizona State 11-6 to maintain an unblemished record in the double-elimination portion of the tournament.
The Ducks (53-8) torched first-team all-American Giselle "G" Juarez for a season-worst 10 earned runs, with eight of nine hitters in the starting lineup reaching base at least once. Speedy top-of-the-order threats Jenna Lilley and Alexis Mack helped Oregon manufacture early offense, sophomores Haley Cruse and Shannon Rhodes homered to provide late cushion, and the Ducks helped sophomore starter Miranda Elish notch the win despite allowing two home runs.
Oregon moved on to face Washington on Friday (4 p.m. PT, ESPN), after the Huskies knocked off two-time national champion Oklahoma later Thursday. The winner between the Ducks and Huskies will earn a day off Saturday, and will need to win once Sunday to reach the three-game championship series Monday.
Making their fifth WCWS appearance under White, the Ducks have never opened the series with consecutive wins. White spoke openly of the need to do so this season, if Oregon is to give fuel to its championship aspirations. And he trusted that his veteran team could manage those expectations.
"It's like the pink elephant in the room," White said. "You pretend something isn't there, it'll bite you. Facts are facts. And if we happened to lose the first game, we'd fight like heck to win the second."
The Ducks don't face that scenario, after their offensive fireworks Thursday. Rhodes added an RBI single and scored on a two-run double by postseason sensation Lauren Burke, and Lilley and Mack combined for five hits and four runs at the top of the lineup.
Arizona State (48-12) shocked the Hall of Fame Stadium crowd by taking an early 2-0 lead on a two-out homer by freshman DeNae Chatman in the top of the first. But the Ducks opened the bottom of the inning with three straight bunts; the last, by DJ Sanders, moved Lilley and Mack up a base each, and senior Gwen Svekis followed with a game-tying, two-run single just over the outstretched glove of a leaping ASU shortstop.
Oregon never trailed again.
"One thing that definitely helped is, we've been on this stage before," Mack said. "We've been to the Super Regional and we've been on this big stage, so the nerves aren't really there. We are not trying to do too much."
Elish (25-1), the star of Oregon's Super Regional comeback with her two must-win victories over Kentucky, settled down at that point, getting through the fourth without allowing another run. Oregon, meanwhile, went up 3-2 in the third when Rhodes singled in Mack, and made it 5-2 when Burke continued her postseason power display with a two-run triple into the right-field corner.
At that point, Oregon's five earned runs were the most surrendered by Jaurez since the opening game of the season. But the Ducks weren't done.
"If you had told me there'd be 17 runs scored off these two pitching staffs, at the start of the game, I'd have thought you were crazy," White said. "It was definitely a dogfight."
After Lilley singled and scored on an error in the fourth, the Sun Devils got back within 6-5 in the fifth on a three-run homer by Morgan Howe. Rhodes led off the bottom of the inning with a double, and one out later Cruse took Juarez deep for some welcome insurance.
Welcome for the Ducks, who appreciated the cushion. And welcome for Cruse, who led Oregon in hitting this season and was moved up in the lineup for the postseason, but since then had endured a slew of hard-luck outs: well-hit balls that sailed right at defenders.
"The game has a way of evening itself out, so I knew something was going to fall for me," Cruse said. "Luckily it came at the right time."
The Ducks still weren't done. After junior Megan Kleist replaced Elish for the sixth, Rhodes came up with two on and two out in the bottom of the inning.
Oregon was facing Juarez for the third time this season, and based on all that experience, Rhodes predicted a riseball. She got one, and crushed it over the outfield fence.
"She's got a sequence," Rhodes said. "I personally think she's very predictable, so we just bought into what Coach White told us — bought into the plan: swing above the ball where it's going to be, instead of under it and trying to lift. Just hit gap-to-gap line drives."
Even better than line drives in the gap, Oregon broke out its home-run bats Thursday. Every time Arizona State threatened an upset bid, the Ducks responded.
"We got on top, they matched it, and that's what our conference has been like all year long," ASU coach Trisha Ford said. "That was a fist fight right there."
Oregon landed the bigger punches. And so, it's on to round two for the Ducks, and another matchup with a Pac-12 foe Friday evening.
Courtesy: UO Athletics