When George Horton looks at top-ranked Oregon State, the veteran coach thinks back to a past life.
Horton, in his ninth season at the helm of the Oregon baseball team, has witnessed perceived injustice morph into motivation.
In the spring of 1991, Horton was an assistant under the legendary Augie Garrido at Cal State Fullerton. The Titans finished the regular season tied with Fresno State atop the Big West Conference standings.
The Bulldogs owned the tiebreaker with Fullerton and received the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Long Beach State, which finished third in Big West, also made it as an at-large selection.
Fullerton was left out.
“They took the third-place team instead of us and we were devastated,” Horton said in a phone interview as the Ducks (26-18, 9-12 Pac-12) prepare to host OSU (38-4, 21-3) for the three-game Civil War Pac-12 series. Thursday’s opener is scheduled for a 6:05 p.m. first pitch.
“We certainly felt like we were deserving, much like the Beavers were surprised they weren’t in.”
Despite a 35-19 overall record and third-place conference finish, OSU wasn’t selected for a regional last year for the first time since 2008. The snub turned to motivation, just like it did for Fullerton.
Garrido and Horton’s club went all the way to the College World Series final in 1992, falling to Pepperdine in the championship game. Three years later, the duo brought a national title back to Orange County.
Fullerton has made 25 consecutive NCAA tournaments since the snub and won the 2004 CWS title under Horton.
“I think the Beavers are on a mission,” the coach said. “They’ve let their actions speak for their words and they are having a heck of a year.
“I still think coach (Pat) Casey is right: they were a playoff-worthy team last year and they are proving it this year. It’s pretty much the same personnel up and down the lineup with a healthy pitching staff, and now they are the number-one team in the nation.”
OSU, which leads the Pac-12 by six and a half games over UCLA (24-21, 13-8) and Stanford (31-13, 13-8), has topped the D1Baseball Top 25 for eight straight weeks.
The Beavers put together a program-record 23-game winning streak earlier this season and have won 10 consecutive conference series dating back to May of 2016. Their magic number to clinch the Pac-12 title outright is two.
“That was definitely one of the goals of the season,” junior KJ Harrison said of a league championship. “It would be amazing and great for our team if we are able to do that.”
Harrison, who is batting .327 while leading the Beavers in home runs (five) and RBIs (28), feels last season’s bitter end has contributed to the team’s success.
Junior infielder Michael Gretler agrees.
“The guys who were there last year, we know that feeling,” he said. “You have something to learn from everything, and the thing we had to take from last year is it happened, it sucked. But it was our job as leaders of the team and upperclassmen to make sure the freshmen who weren’t there, we don’t want them to have that same feeling.”
The Beavers enter the Civil War on a five-game winning streak, including last Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over Oregon at Goss Stadium. OSU is 25-16 overall against its rival since the Ducks brought back baseball for the 2009 season.
Sputtering Oregon has dropped 10 of its last 13 and is in danger of missing the postseason for the second straight year. The Ducks fell to 76th in the NCAA RPI after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss at Portland.
Horton hopes the Civil War will spark the Ducks, who have won the last two series against OSU. Oregon is the last team to defeat the Beavers in a series.
“I think it’s one of the great rivalries in all of sports,” Horton said. “I have great respect for Oregon State and even more so this year because they’ve had a tremendous year. I’m excited to see if we can close the gap and play better baseball.”
Horton said ace David Peterson will start Friday night and not go head-to-head against OSU’s Luke Heimlich.
Peterson, a junior left-hander, threw 113 pitches in Saturday’s 8-2 win at Washington State. Horton didn’t want to deploy Peterson on just four days rest.
“We didn’t think it was in his best interest to come back (early), or in our best interest,” Horton said.
Peterson (10-2, 1.99 ERA) has struck out 117 and walked just eight in 81⅓ innings this year.
Horton said Matt Mercer (5-5, 2.93), who also pitched in Saturday’s rain-caused doubleheader, is in the mix to start Thursday but will likely go in the finale.
OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie confirmed Heimlich (7-1, 0.71) will go Thursday while Friday and Saturday’s starters are to-be-announced. Jake Thompson (10-0, 1.20) is a safe bet to pitch one of the games while Bryce Fehmel (4-2, 4.28), the team’s regular No. 2 starter, could be moved the bullpen after three straight rough outings.
“We evaluate everything every week,” Yeskie said. “The ebbs and flows of the game are going to dictate a lot with what we do, so ultimately right now our focus is on tomorrow.”