Elite pitching, defense fuel Friday night Victory

EUGENE, Ore. — The Oregon baseball team got its best start of the season on the mound Friday, helped by spectacular defense, and backed it up with a professional approach at the plate to open a three-game series against USC with a 4-1 victory before 2,401 fans at PK Park.

RJ Gordon (5-2) continues to blossom as the Ducks’ Friday night starter, coming within two outs of a complete game before Logan Mercado came out to earn his sixth save by recording the final two outs. Oregon’s defense was outstanding, including a catch by center fielder Bryce Boettcher that saved a three-run home run, and the Ducks pushed across single runs in four different innings to win a series opener for the fourth straight weekend.

“RJ obviously was the story of the day,” UO coach Mark Wasikowski said of Gordon, who allowed one run on five hits and three walks, with three strikeouts — his fourth straight start allowing two earned runs or fewer. “I thought RJ was tremendous.”

Boettcher scored two runs on the night, and also brought back a potential three-run home run in the fifth inning. That play came after Jeffery Heard laid out for a diving catch in right-center to open the inning, and the Ducks also turned two double plays that helped limit Gordon’s pitch count and allow him to start the ninth.

“It could easily be a different game if some of those plays aren’t made,” Gordon said. “And I think that’s what’s great about Oregon baseball, is when we all play the way we should, every position, no one’s gonna beat us. It’s great having those guys behind me for sure.”

How It Happened: After Gordon struck out the game’s first hitter, the next three batters reached and a sacrifice fly gave USC a 1-0 lead. That was all the Trojans would end up getting off the Ducks and Gordon.

“He’s pitching like a Friday night guy — as good as there is in the conference right now,” Wasikowski said. “That was one of his goals, and he’s doing that at this point in time.”

Gordon would face the minimum over the next three innings, helped by a double play turned by Maddox Moloney, Drew Smith and Jacob Walsh that negated a one-out single in the fourth inning. And by the time Gordon took the mound for the fifth, Oregon had a 3-1 lead.

The Ducks got started in the second, when Heard hit a leadoff single, took second on an error, was sacrificed to third by Anson Aroz and scored on a passed ball. Boettcher singled with two out in the third, advanced on a balk and scored on a base hit by Bennett Thompson, and in the third Chase Meggers came up with one out and runners at second and third, and smartly hit a ground ball to the right side that scored Aroz.

“I just thought it was an unselfish offensive day,” Wasikowski said.

After Heard’s diving catch to open the fifth, USC put two on. With two outs, the Trojans’ leading hitter, Jacob Galloway, smashed a ball to center that Boettcher tracked to the wall before jumping to bring back what would have been a three-run home run that gave USC the lead.

Boettcher said plays like that are things the UO outfield works on in practice drills.

“Then it just carries over into batting practice, and just crashing into walls, diving for balls,” said Boettcher, a Eugene native who doubles as a linebacker on the UO football team. “People will say you gotta save your body, which, maybe if you’re playing 160 games. But in the fairly short season that we’ve got, you can afford it. And to make those plays, I think it benefits the team.”

Another double play helped Gordon pitch a 1-2-3 eighth inning, when Walsh snared a line drive with one on and one out, then stepped on first to double up the runner. The Ducks added on in the bottom of the eighth, without a hit — Boettcher struck out but reached on a passed ball, Walsh walked with one out, Aroz walked with two out and Ryan Cooney was hit by a pitch to force in Boettcher for a 4-1 lead.

Gordon was pulled in the ninth after a walk put runners at the corners with one out. But Mercado slammed the door for the save, and preserved the win for the Ducks and their Friday night starter.

“I think that’s a position for older guys, just to kind of set the tone for the weekend,” Gordon said of accepting the Friday night role. “And overall it hasn’t been easy for me — I’ve grinded through a lot of not-great outings, good outings, just kind of trying to find that happy medium of what my process is on the mound. I think I’m starting to creep to it; I still think I’ve got a lot of ways to go, but yeah, it’s great.”

On Deck: Game two of the series is Saturday at 2 p.m.