A series sweep over No. 6 Oregon State kept hope alive for another 17 hours, but the harsh truth greeted the Oregon baseball team at 9:30 a.m. Monday morning.
The 2011 season is officially over.
The Ducks (33-26-1, 11-16 Pac-10) were denied a spot in the postseason when the NCAA announced the field early on Monday, leaving head coach George Horton to wonder what went wrong for a team that had so much promise.
“It was a frustrating year, one of the most frustrating of my career,” Horton said. “I’ve had some other crummy years, but not with mystery things and great talent, and as I’ve said before, these kids are good human beings … I just didn’t like their competitive personality all the time.”
It is easy to forget that Oregon began the year as the No. 15 team in the country, and was mentioned as a dark horse candidate for the College World Series. Hopes were sky high, but signs of trouble came early when the Ducks dropped their first two games against unranked Hawaii. Both losses came as a result of struggles in the bullpen, setting the table for a season that would see six blown saves.
Frustrations continued as Oregon lost two of three games against Long Beach State, and a non-conference loss to Oregon State on March 8 saw the Ducks fall to 5-7.
“Early in the year we were coughing up some leads with the ineffectiveness of the pitching,” Horton said. “Starting pitching was spectacular early, and it’s almost a buffet of whatever we can’t do effectively just enough to lose games.”
The Ducks had fallen out of the national rankings after the Long Beach State series, and even an eight-game winning streak could do nothing to change that. As it turned out, Oregon would not climb back into the top 25 for the rest of the season.
It was after an inconsistent month of April that things hit rock bottom in Horton’s eyes. Sophomore catcher Jack Marder suffered what would turn out to be a season-ending thumb injury on May 3 against Oregon State, and just a few days later the Ducks suffered a sweep at home against UCLA.
“Frustrating,” junior starting pitcher Alex Keudell said as he looked back. “Frustrating that we found ways to lose games that I didn’t know was possible. So many ups and downs.”
Something had to change, and Horton knew it.
“We kind of felt like it was slipping,” Horton said. “Some of the conversations were about summer ball and the draft, and maybe the practices weren’t as committed and crisp. Felt like we were on the verge of going through the motions for the last 12 (games).”
With their playoff hopes very near dead, the Ducks resolved to finish the year on a high note.
“We all to a man decided, ‘Let’s shore it up, let’s cinch up the belt buckle, let’s focus on these last 12,’” Horton said. “And the guys bought into it.”
Oregon won four of its next five games, including two of three against a red-hot Stanford team. The season finally appeared to have turned for the better, but a road trip to Washington State proved to be a backbreaker.
The series was lost on a walk-off hit, and with it went Oregon’s playoff hopes.
“I’ll just say it,” Horton said. “If we would have won that Sunday game, I’d be telling you right now we’re in (the playoffs).”
The sweep of Oregon State to end the season proved to be bittersweet. On one hand, the Ducks had thoroughly dominated their biggest rivals, and could head into the off-season with their heads held high. Yet, it was also a reminder of what could have been.
“This is what we should have been doing all season long,” junior second baseman Danny Pulfer said. “But the fact that it was the last series, and it’s the last three games against the Beavers … to come in and do that, it’s very special.”
The talent had been there all along. For whatever reason, it simply hadn’t come together until the very end.
“I don’t think we ever caught our stride until right now,” Horton said. “It’s a measuring stick for us that when we put our mind to it, and when we put it all together, that we could do what we thought we could do: play with any team in the country.”