EUGENE, Ore. — The Oregon baseball team will play in an NCAA Championship tournament regional final for the first time in seven years Sunday, after the No. 13 Ducks beat Gonzaga on Saturday, 7-3, to remain unbeaten in the Eugene Regional.
Robert Ahlstrom went eight innings Saturday for the Ducks, and Gabe Matthews drove in runs during Oregon’s four-run first inning and three-run fourth. The Bulldogs will play an elimination game Sunday at 3 p.m. against Louisiana State, with the winner to face the Ducks later Sunday; LSU needed extra innings to beat Central Connecticut in an elimination game Saturday afternoon.
The Ducks are playing in a regional final for the first time since 2014, when they failed to advance against regional host Vanderbilt. With a win Sunday night, or Monday should Oregon lose Sunday, the Ducks would advance to the Super Regional round for the first time since 2012.
“It’s an experience nobody can ever take away from you; it’s awesome,” Matthews said. “It really set in after we turned that double play (for the first two outs) in the ninth — holy smokes, we’re here.”
A day after the Ducks weren’t particularly sharp, most notably around the infield, they played a cleaner game Saturday and in fact put pressure on Gonzaga’s defense that helped Oregon score four runs in the first inning.
“It looked like they learned a lot of lessons from yesterday’s win,” UO coach Mark Wasikowski said. “It was a well-rounded team win. … We didn’t play nervous today like we did yesterday, which is a really good sign for the team.”
How It Happened: After losing a coin flip for the right to be the home team, the Ducks came to bat in the top of the first inning and — for the second day in a row — wasted no time grabbing a lead. Tanner Smith led off with his school-record 24th double of the season, and two errors by Gonzaga infielders brought him around to score. An RBI groundout by Josh Kasevich scored Aaron Zavala to make it 2-0, and Anthony Hall doubled home Matthews for a 3-0 lead. Sam Novitske followed with a single to plate Hall and make it 4-0.
Smith’s leadoff double capped a 10-pitch at-bat to open the game, and saw him aggressively dig for second on a shot into right-center field. Smith fell behind 1-2 to start the at-bat, then took two more balls and fouled off four other pitches before his hit fell in.
“Tanner started that whole thing,” Matthews said. “His at-bat to start the game set the tone for the entire game. That was a tough at-bat; him hitting that double and getting us going, it was all him.”
Gonzaga threatened to respond in the bottom of the first against Ahlstrom, putting runners on second and third with one out. Ahlstrom struck out the next hitter, and Kasevich dove to snag a low line drive to shortstop that ended the threat.
The Bulldogs broke through in the third, loading the bases on two hits and a hit batter with no outs. A sacrifice fly brought one run in, and a two-run single made it 4-3. The Ducks escaped further trouble when Smith hauled in a line drive in left field and Ahlstrom snared a comebacker before throwing to first for the third out.
Oregon’s offense had their ace’s back, responding in the top of the fourth. With two outs, Gonzaga wanted no part of UO slugger Kenyon Yovan and walked him on four pitches. That decision backfired when Zavala blasted a double that hit off the top of the fence in right-center to score Yovan, and Matthews followed with his 22nd career home run to get the UO lead back to four runs at 7-3.
Ahlstrom pitched out of trouble again in the fifth, loading the bases with one out before getting a double play to end it. That began a run of nine straight hitters retired by Ahlstrom, until a two-out single in the eighth that he pitched around to complete his outing.
“The third inning kind of got away from me a little bit,” Ahlstrom said. “But we answered back, which was huge. I just told myself, I’ve got to keep them here (at three runs), stay in this game as long as I can. Yeah, it was awesome.”
The Ducks missed out on a chance to add on in the eighth, when Novitske led off with a single, was bunted to second and stole third. Gavin Grant worked the count full and then looked to lay down a bunt, with Novitske breaking for home. Grant struck out, and Novitske was tagged out by the catcher to end the inning.
At The Plate: Novitske had his third three-hit game of the season, and his first since April 18. Hall followed up his three-hit day Friday with hits in his first two at-bats Saturday, putting him at 12 total bases so far in the regional. Matthews drove in three runs to extend his UO career record to 137, and scored twice to tie the UO record of 135 runs set by Aaron Payne from 2011-14. With 22 career home runs, Matthews is alone in fifth in UO history, one behind Yovan.
On The Mound: Ahlstrom threw a season-high 129 pitches, 10 more than his previous season high. He won for the seven straight start, improving to 9-3 on the season. Kolby Somers finished the game for the second time in two days, walking the leadoff hitter in the ninth on four pitches before coaxing a double play and then striking out the final hitter of the night.
Up Next: The Ducks return to the field Sunday at 7 p.m.