Oregon’s seniors shed tears on Sunday at Jane Sanders Stadium.
Not because they were saying goodbye, but because the crowd of 2,522 said hello again to Maggie Balint.
The sophomore pitcher, who had not been in the circle since April 15 and had only made three appearances in Pac-12 play, was given a standing ovation before closing out the second-ranked Ducks’ 8-1 victory over Utah in the regular-season home finale.
Balint, a rising star as a true freshman before being supplanted by classmate Miranda Elish in the rotation this year, allowed three hits but no runs over the final two innings.
“During the game I was fine,” said senior Gwen Svekis, one of the four seniors honored during a ceremony before the first pitch. “The most emotional I was during the game was when Maggie got the standing ovation from the crowd, which was pretty cool, pretty emotional for me as her catcher.”
Moments before the fans gave the players goose bumps with their response to Balint’s first home appearance since a nonconference start against Portland State on April 3, they were booing Miranda Viramontes.
The Utah pitcher intentionally walked Jenna Lilley to deny the third baseman a chance to deliver a walk-off hit in the bottom of the fifth inning.
The next batter, Alexis Mack, grounded out, which gave Balint a chance to finish the game. The right-hander struck out two batters, and Lilley helped her by making three plays in the field.
“We were looking for an extra two miles per hour from her, and I think she got it from the crowd,” coach Mike White said. “(Walking Lilley) let her make some more plays, and it got Maggie Balint in the game. Everything happens for a reason, and that was good enough for me.”
The seniors set the tone offensively.
Senior second baseman Lauren Lindvall hit a bases-clearing double to stake the Ducks to a 3-0 lead in the second after Utah starter Hailey Hilburn gave up two walks and a single.
Two batters later, Lilley gave a 3-0 pitch a ride into the wall just left of the foul line in left field. The senior took a ball on the next pitch to reload the bases.
Katie Donovan, a former South Salem High standout, replaced Hilburn in the circle and got pinch-hitter April Utecht to ground into a double play to limit the damage.
After senior shortstop DJ Sanders singled to lead off the third, Svekis crushed a two-run home run into the centerfield bleachers to make the score 5-0.
“That was a pretty good job by Lauren and Gwen. I thought they did an awesome job leading the team today,” White said. “A lot of emotions. Fortunately we were able to keep them under wraps.”
The Utes (20-28, 2-19) got on the board with a one-out RBI single by Ally Dickman in the fourth, but Oregon starter Megan Kleist responded with two strikeouts to end the rally.
Kleist (19-5) allowed six hits and the lone run with six strikeouts and no walks over five innings before handing the ball over to Balint.
“I was so happy. The crowd, the standing ovation, that was amazing,” Lilley said. “I don’t think she’s been in in a while in a Pac-12 game, so it was awesome to come out there and see her all confident. She did great and she induced a lot of ground balls to me, so I like that too selfishly.”
Svekis, who hit a two-run bloop single during Oregon’s 5-2 comeback victory on Saturday, found the same Bermuda triangle in the Utah outfield for a leadoff single in the fifth. But she was erased on a force out at third base after mistakenly retreating to second base.
Shannon Rhodes got caught in a rundown moments later between second and third base but managed to escape without getting tagged out.
Lindvall took advantage of the Utah mistake with an RBI single. Two more runs came home when Haley Cruse reached on an error by second baseman Camryn Woodall.
Lilley said the crowd’s reaction to her getting intentionally walked made her laugh.
“I had to be ready in the box still, but I was like, ‘They are ruthless,’” Lilley said. “That was pretty funny. I love them. That’s awesome. …
“They make me feel special.”
Oregon, which plays at No. 24 California to finish the regular season next weekend, remains tied for first place in the Pac-12 with No. 1 UCLA.
The Ducks’ seniors will have a chance to play more home games during an NCAA Regional and likely Super Regional later this month.
“I try to view it more as a happy day rather than a sad day,” Lilley said. “I think we’re in a good place. We’ve been playing some good softball.”