Sanders’ slam sinks Beavers
CORVALLIS — Megan Kleist didn’t see the most critical swing in recent Civil War softball history.
“I wasn’t watching, to be honest,” Oregon’s ace admitted. “I was closing my eyes, I was scared. But I heard the sound, and I had to open them and run. It was a great feeling.”
The first sound Kleist heard was the crack of DJ Sanders’ bat as the struggling shortstop’s grand slam in the top of eighth inning lifted fifth-ranked Oregon to a dramatic 5-1 victory over Oregon State on Saturday in front of a crowd of 1,410.
As the ball sailed into the parking lot beyond center field, audible gasps from the orange-clad fans and a roar from the green section of the record crowd echoed throughout the Oregon State Softball Complex.
“Oh my gosh that’s a big one,” Oregon coach Mike White said after watching his players surprise Sanders with a postgame Gatorade shower. “Obviously she’s trying really hard to get things done. It’s a lot of pressure to come into a top-10 program and try to perform like that. …
“I hope it sets her on fire. There’s always turning points in a season.”
Sanders, who led the NCAA in home runs (29) and RBIs (82) last season at Louisiana-Lafayette, is only hitting .262 for the Ducks. She had not driven in a run since March 2 and had not hit a home run since Feb. 25.
“Obviously I’ve been struggling hitting, so it was nice,” said Sanders, who now has eight home runs and 21 RBIs for Oregon. “Especially at the end of the weekend, so I kind of have this feeling to take with me.”
The Ducks (27-6, 4-2) bounced back from Friday’s loss to the improved Beavers (20-15, 3-6) to win the three-game series.
Oregon, which has won 17 of the last 18 meetings in the rivalry, now leads the all-time series with Oregon State 93-92-1.
“That was emotional as a game can get,” senior catcher Gwen Svekis said. “We’ve had two very emotional series back-to-back with UCLA and now this one. It’s great to come out with a win in both series. We’re super stoked.
“I’m really happy for DJ. She needed that, we needed that, it was just a total team win at the end. We all bought in.”
White, who was “embarrassed” by some of the mistakes his team made during the Beavers’ 4-3 walk-off win Friday, would have been satisfied with the Ducks’ performance even without Sanders’ heroics.
Kleist (10-4, 0.91 ERA) — who has suffered a couple of tough-luck defeats this season in the circle, including losing to Florida State despite throwing a no-hitter — allowed six hits and one run over eight innings with five strikeouts and no walks.
Sanders and third baseman Jenna Lilley both made some slick defensive plays, and second baseman Lauren Lindvall made a clutch play on a high chopper to get a force out that stranded two base runners in the bottom of the sixth.
“What a great game to watch,” White said. “Obviously, I’m happy because we won, but I think either way you had to be proud to be a part of this softball game. …
“The Beavers are back, I’ll say that much for them. They did very well, they’re a very good ball team.”
McKenna Arriola hit a two-out solo home run to right field to give the Beavers a 1-0 lead in the third.
Lindvall belted a standup double to open the fifth, but Sanders grounded out and Lilley struck out. That’s when White decided to have true freshman Lauren Burke pinch-hit with two outs.
The former Marist High standout came through with an RBI single to tie the score 1-1.
“I went with a gut feeling,” White said of inserting Burke into the lineup. “It doesn’t hurt that she’s from Eugene either.”
Lindvall hit a rocket that was caught on the warning track by centerfielder Jessica Garcia for the first out in the seventh. Sanders reached on the first walk of the game and Lilley reached on an error, but Burke and Svekis grounded out to end the threat.
Oregon State starter Mariah Mazon (8-9) scattered 10 hits and kept the Beavers in position to win a Civil War series for the first time in six years, until giving up Sanders’ deep fly on a 3-2 offering.
“At 3-2 I was like, ‘There’s no way. She’s either going to have to walk me or I’m going to hit it,’” Sanders said. “I was not going to let that be strike three, I was just trying to find a way to hit it solid, and that was my only approach.”
So what pitch did Mazon finally make a mistake on?
“I have no idea,” Sanders said. “It was something inside because I don’t think I’d hit it that far if it wasn’t.”
Kleist opened her eyes and closed out her complete game to keep Oregon in the thick of the Pac-12 race.
“Having those four runs, I could breathe a little bit,” Kleist said. “I’m so happy for (Sanders), she deserves it.”