Top-seeded Oregon leaned on dominant pitching and timely pinch-hitting to get off to a smooth start on the road to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Miranda Elish threw a four-hit complete game with 14 strikeouts, and Lauren Burke came off the bench to hit a two-run home run to lead the Ducks to a 4-0 softball victory over Albany in the NCAA Eugene Regional on Thursday in front of a capacity crowd of 2,522 at Jane Sanders Stadium.
“It’s always a worry,” coach Mike White said of handling the pressure of being the heavy favorite. “I thought Miranda came out and pitched a very good game, set the tone for us with three strikeouts in the first inning. … Then, fortunately, Lauren made me look good.”
The Ducks (48-7), who improved to 25-0 in regionals under White, will play Drake at 3 p.m. Friday. The Bulldogs (44-10), back in the NCAA bracket for the first time in 10 years, defeated BYU 3-2 for the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
“It’s going to take one of our best games all year,” Drake coach Rich Calvert, whose team has won 29 of its past 30 games, said of Drake's chances of upsetting Oregon in the regional. “They’ve got great pitching, they have two of the best (pitchers) in the country, and we’ve got one as well. It’s going to need to be low scoring for us to come out on top.”
Burke, a true freshman from Eugene, had a memorable postseason debut, coming off the bench and crushing a deep fly over the fence in right field in the bottom of the fifth inning, which gave Oregon the four-run cushion.
The former Marist High standout grew up watching the Ducks make postseason runs at Howe Field while emerging as an elite recruiting prospect. A strong week of batting practice gave White the confidence to insert Burke into the lineup late in a tight game.
“Lauren really impressed me this week with her swings,” White said. “I wasn’t expecting the home run, but I’ll certainly take it.”
Elish (21-1) struck out the side in the first and sixth innings and had two strikeouts in the fourth and seventh innings. The powerful right-hander also had some help from the infield early in the game.
Second baseman Lauren Lindvall and shortstop DJ Sanders turned a slick double-play to end the second. Sanders also gloved a hard-hit line drive up the middle for the first out of the third.
“Of course I’m nervous coming into the game because these are the top 64 teams in the country, and every one is a good team,” Elish said. “I just got into a really good groove, and my defense was working well behind me.”
Oregon stranded one runner in the first inning and loaded the bases in the second, but Jenna Lilley struck out swinging after taking two borderline pitches that were called strikes.
Alexis Mack drew a lead-off walk, stole second base and scored on an RBI single by Sanders to give the Ducks a 1-0 lead in the third.
In the fifth, Lilley smacked a double to center field, was moved to third base on a sacrifice by Mack and scored on a wild pitch to make the score 2-0 before Burke’s blast.
“The first pitch I let go was a really good pitch to hit,” Burke said of her at-bat. “I was just looking to attack anything that was close to the zone, and that’s what I did.”
Albany starter Celeste Verdolivo (16-3) allowed six hits and four runs over six innings. The Great Danes (32-15), who won the American East regular-season and tournament titles, will face BYU in an elimination game Friday.
“I think we started the game a little bit nervous, swung at a lot of bad pitches, but after that I thought we settled down,” Albany coach Chris Cannata said. “I’m proud of the way we competed.”
In the first game, Drake’s Nicole Newman (22-3), who was second nationally with a 0.62 earned-run average entering the postseason, hit a solo home run in the third inning off BYU counterpart Autumn Moffat (8-7) and slammed the door on the West Coast Conference champion Cougars (35-21) with six strikeouts over 2 1/3 innings in relief.
Taryn Pena tripled to lead off the bottom of the sixth and eventually scored the winning run when Tasha Alexander drew a two-out bases-loaded walk. BYU intentionally walked Newman to load the bases.
“It was pretty hard because I really wanted to get a hit,” Alexander said of patiently bringing home the winning run via a walk. “Coach told me to take a pitch, and I needed that for sure to help me calm down. After that I was relaxed and ready and knew whatever was going to happen was going to happen. We had another inning if we needed it.”
Oregon will start junior Megan Kleist (20-5, 0.96 ERA), the Pac-12 pitcher of the year, in the circle opposite Newman, the Missouri Valley pitcher of the year.
“We better be ready,” White said of the matchup. “(Newman’s) going to bring it.”
If the Ducks win the double-elimination regional they will host a super regional next weekend with a chance to advance to the WCWS for the fifth time under White.