As the leadoff hitter on Ashland High's 2008 state championship team and the Medford Mustangs' 2009 American Legion AAA World Series runner-up, Max Gordon learned how to handle the pressure that comes with big games and high expectations.
But to the Oregon State starting center fielder, it's doubtful that any of his previous experience, considerable as it may be, has approached the sort of crackling intensity that he expects in Eugene this weekend when the fourth-ranked Beavers face off against the sixth-ranked Oregon Ducks at PK Park.
"This series has got the most behind it than any other game I've ever played in," said Gordon, who was 4-for-11 with three runs in last week's three-game sweep of Stanford. "Aside from winning a national championship, this is the game that we want to win. There's a whole lot of things on the line, and the rivalry between the two schools just makes it that much more intense."
The three-game series that will likely decide the Pac-12 Conference — first-place Oregon State is 20-4 in the Pac-12 with six league games remaining, while second-place Oregon is 19-5 — begins with Game 1 on Friday at 6 p.m., and both Game 2 (2 p.m., Saturday) and Game 3 (noon, Sunday) will be televised live on the Pac-12 Network.
After an early-season slump cost him a crack at the leadoff spot, Gordon has rediscovered the sweet lefty swing that terrorized southern Oregon pitchers for years and is back in the starting lineup, batting ninth in the Beavers' order.
Gordon is batting .279, has scored 17 runs and has an on-base percentage of .415, respectable numbers considering the whiff-fest in March and early April that nearly derailed his final collegiate season. He began the year as Oregon State's primary leadoff batter, but fell into the biggest funk of his baseball life heading into Pac-12 play, then went a combined 2-for-13 in series against Arizona and Arizona State. That earned Gordon a spot on the bench, where he stayed as the Beavers (41-8) won five of six games against UCLA and Utah.
"I wasn't hitting the ball very well and it just didn't turn out very well," Gordon said. "They kept giving me opportunities and I wasn't really performing.
"I sat for a couple weeks and once I got another opportunity I didn't want to let it get too far away to the point where I was going to be buried on the bench."
Gordon's next opportunity in a Pac-12 game didn't come until the Beavers traveled to Seattle, Wash., April 20 for a three-game series against Washington. Batting in the nine hole, Gordon made the most of his second chance. He went 3-for-8 against the Huskies to earn another start the following week against Southern Cal, then against the Trojans Gordon again stepped up, going 5-for-9 in the Beavers' three-game sweep. That included a 4-for-5 day in Oregon State's 10-4 series-opening win on April 26.
Gordon continued his late-season surge over the next two weeks against California and Stanford and now has the seventh-best batting average on the team for players with at least 80 at-bats.
"I don't think it was nerves because this is my third year here now and I'm feeling pretty comfortable at the plate," Gordon said of his poor start. "I think it was just my plan at the plate. I was just kind of going up there and swinging. I didn't have a good idea of what I wanted to do and I got away from the type of player I am."
Though he was disappointed to lose his spot at the top of the order, Gordon has found that batting ninth has its own perks.
"I think it's been big because I see a lot of fastballs," he said. "I've been spreading my feet a little bit and sitting on something I can handle and trying to go the other way. It makes it a lot easier, being (5-foot-8). They see me up there and they're like, 'Let's just throw him some fastballs and get him out of the way.'"
Gordon's return to the lineup adds another chapter to what was already a compelling underdog story.
After graduating from Ashland High in 2008, Gordon played for Sierra College, a small community college near Sacramento, Calif., in 2009. He batted .281 in 43 games for the Wolverines then moved back to Ashland, where he did maintenance work for the school district and rejoined the Grizzlies as an assistant coach for the 2010 season. During that year off, Gordon called Oregon State head coach Pat Casey — Sam Gaviglio, the star pitcher on Ashland's state championship team who by that time had emerged as Oregon State's ace, provided Casey's cell phone number — and asked for a shot as a walk-on. Casey said yes, and Gordon saw limited action as a sophomore in 2011, then played in 47 games and made 29 starts last season.
Now, he seems to have found a home at the bottom of the order, but his offense is only part of the reason. Gordon has made several highlight-reel catches for the Beavers, including a diving grab at the warning track against Stanford last Friday that helped Oregon State pull out a 7-3 win (the clip has about 7,000 hits on YouTube).
Spectacular plays were a common occurrence when Gordon roamed the outfield at North Mountain Park. Now, he's doing it with 3,000-plus fans in attendance. And a Pac-12 championship on the line.
"Coming down the stretch here, we're just trying to keep it rolling," Gordon said, "It's a real good team atmosphere we've got going — I think we can do some real damage in the playoffs. "¦But we really want to take the Ducks down and get the Pac-12 out of the way first."
Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com