Alex Keudell

Alex Keudell and the Ducks catapulted past Arizona.
Photo by Thomas Patterson/Statesman Journal

It took a while for the battle for first place to settle in. The Oregon Ducks and Arizona Wildcats each won handily in the first two games of the baseball series in Tucson.

The rubber match, however, was worthy of championship-level hype. The contest featured quality pitching, pressure-packed at-bats, and a Hi Corbett-sized helping of controversy.

On Friday good pitching beat good hitting as the Wildcats were held to fewer than two runs for just the second time in conference play. Saturday saw good hitting beat good pitching as the Ducks allowed a season-high 12 runs.

So, naturally, Sunday was decided by…a balk?

Oregon’s Kevin Garlick was caught leaning toward second with Arizona leading 1-0 in the top of the 7th inning. Wildcat pitcher James Farris’ pickoff throw clearly beat Garlick and the first-base umpire called the out.

The problem was home plate umpire Greg Charles saw it differently. He immediately ran toward the mound and indicated that Farris had committed a balk with his front leg before throwing to first. Arizona coach Andy Lopez disagreed with Charles disagreeing and argued the call until getting ejected.

“I was more concerned that (the home plate ump) would make that call,” Lopez said, “when there’s a first-base umpire out here not making a call.”

Sure enough, Garlick eventually came around to score to tie the game when Farris’ pitch went off catcher Riley Moore‘s glove to the backstop. The Ducks took the lead in the 8th and added an insurance run in the 9th to win the series and maintain possession of first place in the Pac-12.

The balk was definitely the turning point but the real credit goes to Oregon’s pitching staff. The first time Arizona was held below two runs in Pac-12 play – in the conference season opener against Washington State – the Cats bounced back to score 20 runs in the final two games to take the series. The UA had its way on Saturday but the Wildcat lineup was stifled again in the finale, this time by Duck hurlers Jeff Gold and Jimmie Sherfy.

Oregon still has work to do but there is no question the Ducks deserve to win Pac-12 title. Arizona had fellow contenders Stanford, UCLA and Oregon all at home and the Cats lost two of the series (albeit with a 5-4 record). The Ducks played Stanford, UCLA and Arizona all on the road and won all three series.

Now we have the answer to the age-old question: How long does it take to build an elite college baseball team when you have a national champion coach and the financial backing of a sporting goods empire?

OK, maybe you weren’t asking that question but the answer is four years. Here’s what George Horton’s Ducks have left on the schedule:

Oregon 16-8
H USC
H (Seattle U.)
A OSU

I fully expect Oregon to sweep USC at home next week. That leaves Oregon State, who helped Arizona (and Oregon) by taking two of three from Stanford this weekend. Even if the Ducks drop two in Corvallis they’ll still finish with a 20-10 league record.

UCLA 12-9
A Washington
A Cal
H USC

UCLA was playing out of conference and won a series against a ranked Purdue team. How could the Bruins possibly feel bad about that? How about taking a five-run lead into the 9th and giving up ten runs to lose the finale. That’s one way to put a damper on your weekend.

The Bruins aren’t out of the race but their margin for error is much thinner than leading by a handful in the final frame.

Stanford 11-10
H WSU
A Utah
H Cal

Stanford getting its 10th loss on Sunday is big because the Cardinal may very well win out. Oregon State and Washington are also 11-10 but the Beavers will not sweep Oregon and the Huskies will not sweep UCLA and ASU so neither can run the table.

ARIZONA 13-8
A Cal
A USC
H ASU

So to win the conference the Cats have to get to 20-10 and hope for help. That means the UA needs to go 5-1 on the road the next two weekends and then see where things stand going into the final weekend against ASU. Not an easy task.

Lopez said, “I teach our guys ‘microscope and telescope.’ Microscope: today, tough loss. Great one to win, tough one to lose. Telescope: got three weeks left. That’s a lot of baseball.”

“That’s a lot of balk calls.”

* * *

Even though the end result wasn’t what anyone in Red and Blue wanted, the news wasn’t all bad. The Wildcat bats were held in check in the deciding games but some positive steps were made on the pitching front.

Freshman Tyler Crawford gave fans hope for the bullpen with his winning performance after transitioning from midweek starter to weekend reliever.

And Farris, a sophomore, turned in another quality start on Sunday, even in a losing effort, pitching seven-plus innings for the sixth time this season.

It’s not common for a college team to keep the same Sunday starter all season (Oregon hasn’t done it) yet Farris has taken the ball in the final game of each weekend series this year. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t on the radar at the end of his freshman season.

After a disastrous debut last year – facing five batters and giving up three runs without recording a single out – Farris sat for two months and only appeared in one game the rest of the way.

“Some freshmen plug right in,” Lopez said, “and others, it takes them a little bit longer to figure out what they have to do to be successful at this level. (Farris) is doing it now.”

When Farris was asked what changed for him from last year the right-hander replied, “I think I’m more mentally tough. I know what to expect in this program. I know what Coach Lopez wants us to do.”

“You gotta have high standards in this program,” Farris continued. “I’ve raised my standards a lot from last year.”

Those higher standards will need to be met for this team to rebound from the loss to Oregon and build momentum as the postseason approaches. Lopez sees Farris as a big part of the team’s future.

“It’s nice to see that as the season is progressing he seems to be getting a little bit better,” Lopez said. “That bodes well for us this year and – with him being a sophomore – next year.”

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Scott Terrell approves of higher standards. Raise the bar on Twitter and Facebook.