Megan Kleist was nearly perfect in the circle, and Lauren Burke has been perfectly remarkable pinch-hitting in the postseason.
Now No. 1 Oregon, which improved to 26-0 in regional play under coach Mike White with Friday’s 5-0 victory over Drake, will have a margin for error Saturday when the Ducks try to advance out of the double-elimination NCAA Eugene Regional at Jane Sanders Stadium.
Oregon will play Drake, which bounced back with a 3-0 win over BYU in an elimination game Friday night, again at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Cougars eliminated Albany with a 16-0 victory in a five-inning game before getting shut out by Drake pitcher Nicole Timmons in the nightcap.
The Bulldogs (45-11) will have to beat the Ducks (49-7), who are 21-1 at home this season, twice to prevent Oregon from hosting a super regional next weekend.
“Obviously, we’re happy to be in the driver’s seat with still two lives left,” White said. “I think that’s what you need to try to accomplish to move ahead.”
The crowd groaned as Kleist gave up a two-out single in the top of the seventh inning to Macy Johnson to end her quest for a perfect game. The Oregon ace hit the next batter with a pitch before taking a deep breath and finishing the game by inducing a fly ball to right field.
Kleist (21-5) lowered her earned-run average to 0.92 after striking out seven batters during the one-hit shutout.
“I wouldn’t really say I was too excited or too down,” Kleist said of her emotions during the inning. “I think that’s one of my strengths as a pitcher, I try to stay not so high on the roller coaster, not so down. I try to stay level and I think that’s where I have my success.”
Burke’s success has come off the bench in the fifth inning.
The true freshman from Eugene, who hit a solo home run in her first postseason at-bat during Oregon’s 4-0 victory over Albany on Thursday, repeated the feat with a two-run blast to give the Ducks a 4-0 lead.
“I’m proud of myself,” Burke, the former Marist High standout, said when asked if she was surprised by her postseason power surge. “I’m seeing the ball well. Through practice we’ve prepared for the pitching that we’re going to see. Through Pac-12 play we’ve seen the rise ball, we’ve seen the drop ball, we’ve seen the pitching we’re going to face. I think that has prepared us well.
“I’m not necessarily surprised, but I’m excited still.”
Kleist was not surprised by the run support she received from Burke, calling the shot in the dugout before it happened.
“I was saying to the person next to me, ‘I dare her to do it again,’” Kleist said. “She did, so she proved me right. You can’t really hope for that, you can’t rely on the long ball. … She always comes through for us in big moments. I’m so happy for her.”
Drake ace Nicole Newman (22-4) had a 0.61 ERA, which ranked second nationally, before allowing seven hits and four runs over 4 1/3 innings.
Kailee Smith came in to relieve Newman after Burke’s bomb and immediately gave up a solo home run to Mary Iakopo, another true freshman, that gave the Ducks their five-run cushion.
“Their pitcher Newman is one of the best pitchers in the country,” White said. “Certainly, she had us struggling for a few innings, until we were able to break through with Lauren Burke’s home run obviously.”
Newman was victimized by some bad luck when Drake second baseman Kennedy Frank tripped while backpedaling to catch a shallow pop fly. The ball dropped, allowing Shannon Rhodes to reach on the error and Jenna Lilley to score from second base to give Oregon a 1-0 lead.
That was all the scoring the Ducks would need with Kleist in complete command of her drop, rise and change-up pitches for 6 2/3 innings.
"I mean it kind of sucks, obviously. You want to have that," Kleist, who has three career no-hitters, said of the elusive perfect game. "But that’s what good teams do, they capitalize on your mistakes. I happened to make a mistake, and they hit it. That’s part of the game."
The Ducks threatened again in the third with two runners on and one out, but Newman got Rhodes to pop out and left fielder Kelsey Wright swooped in and snared a fly ball while avoiding a collision with two teammates also giving chase.
“Those are some of the breaks you probably need. Hopefully they continue going forward,” White said. “I thought we did a good job battling, kept our composure, good fielding, and we were fortunate to come out and be on top.”
In the fourth, after a two-out single by Haley Cruse, Lilley — dubbed “Miss May” by White for her history of coming through on the postseason stage — ripped an RBI double to right field to make the score 2-0.
Through 14 innings of regional play, Kleist and Miranda Elish have not allowed any runs or walks and allowed a combined five hits with 25 strikeouts.
“I’ve never lost a shutout,” White said. “You throw the zero up there, you’re pretty good.”