Mark Machtolf allowed that he may have stayed with starting pitcher Matt Fields “a batter too long” on Friday night, though upon reflection, the timing may have been just right for his bullpen.
Protecting the narrowest of leads with the highest of stakes, Gonzaga relievers Reedy Berg and Cody Martin put away eight of the last nine Loyola Marymount batters to preserve a 4-3 victory at Patterson Baseball Complex and clinch a spot in next week’s West Coast Conference championship series.
A victory either today at 1 p.m. or Sunday will give Gonzaga (31-15, 13-6) the host’s role for the best-of-3 playoff to determine the WCC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Zags managed just six hits off Lions ace Lee Roberts (7-2), but home runs by Tyson Van Winkle and, especially, Ernesto Ortiz couldn’t have been bigger.
“It’s nice to get this one, but this team we’re playing isn’t going away,” Machtolf said.
That was evident when the Lions (29-26, 12-7) spotted Gonzaga a 4-0 lead, chipped away at Fields for a two-out run in the sixth inning and then made it interesting on Kyle Spraker’s two-run homer in the seventh.
It came on Fields’ 121st pitch in a game in which the senior right-hander (7-1) was forced to battle beginning to end through, among other things, a 12-pitch at-bat by Ryan Hawthorne to lead off the game and three hit batsmen.
But the left-handed Berg came on to retire the Lions’ Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Ryan Wheeler and Angelo Songco, on ground balls, and Martin struck out five batters over the last two innings to earn his fifth save.
“That’s what you live for as a pitcher. You want the ball in tough spots,” Martin said.
In fact, perhaps the tighter the situation, the better.
“Sometimes it almost is better when it’s a one-run game,” he said. “Coming into games up by a lot or down by a lot, it can be hard when you’re so molded into coming in when it’s close when it’s one mistake and you’re done.”
Machtolf was weighing that margin of error in a bigger-picture sense.
“Baseball’s a strange game that way,” Machtolf said. “You have the lead and the advantage, but if you use up Cody then (the next game) becomes more of a problem if you don’t win this one.”
It would be less of a problem if the Zags swing the bats better, but coming off a stretch in which they’d played just one game in 11 days and managed just two hits in that one was telling. Still, what they managed was certainly timely.
Van Winkle blasted a 1-1 pitch high off the screen in left field after Drew Heid was hit by a pitch in the first inning. Roberts then retired 10 of the next 11 GU batters until Mark Castellitto opened the bottom of the fifth with a hard shot off the heel of the pitcher’s glove.
Jason Chatwood angled a pretty bunt left of the plate that Spraker slipped trying to field, his wild throw allowing Castellitto to advance to third. The Zags seemed poised for a big inning until Roberts got Chris Sturdivant to bounce into a double play that scored the run but deflated the anticipation.
But Ortiz, a freshman shortstop from Phoenix and the Zags’ No. 9 hitter, surprised everyone in the crowd of 1,072 with a first-pitch drive over the left-field fence for his third home run of the year.
“He left a curveball up in the zone and I just put a good swing on it,” Ortiz said. “In a situation like that, it’s kind of like a dagger to the heart.”
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