One final game for the West Coast Conference championship.
Such are the stakes Sunday thanks to Gonzaga University’s 7-5 come-from-behind victory over the University of San Francisco today, squaring the regular-season-ending series at a game apiece.
With the comeback win – USF led 4-2 going into the bottom of the seventh – Gonzaga pulled even with the Dons atop the WCC at 15-5. Sunday’s winner not only takes the conference crown but also the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament field that will be announced Monday.
“One game, that’s where it is,” GU coach Mark Machtolf said. “It all comes down to nine innings of baseball. Hopefully, 81/2.”
That the Zags (32-18-1 overall) still have a shot tomorrow is because of a five-run seventh-inning rally – and to their youngest starting pitcher, left-hander Marco Gonzales.
The freshman from Fort Collins, Colo., came within one out of finishing a 139-pitch effort before 904 at the Patterson Baseball Complex.
“It’s amazing the composure he has,” Machtolf said. “He’s shown it all year.”
And he would have to show it against the Dons.
After starting quickly, striking out the side in the first, part of what would be a career-high 12 Ks, Gonzales struggled in the second.
Travis Higgs opened the inning with an opposite-field double down the right-field line. Following a move-the-runner-up ground out, Jason Mahood and Ted LeMasters each singled, with Mahood’s scoring Higgs.
After an out, No. 9 hitter Mason Morioka lined a full-count fastball to the center-field fence and gave the Dons (30-23) a 3-0 advantage.
“They earned their runs that inning,” Gonzaga catcher Cameron Edman said. “Yesterday, we felt they got them off a couple of our miscues, but today, tip your hat to them. They came to play, got a couple runs they manufactured on their own.”
From there, Gonzales (11-2) settled down, limiting the Dons to two hits over the next six innings.
The Zags chipped away, starting with a two-out run in the bottom half of the second when they strung together singles from Clayton Eslick, Andy Hunter and a run-scorer from No. 9 hitter Steven Halcomb.
Keegan Asher tripled and scored on Tyler Chism’s fifth-inning sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 3-2, but Mahood, who had three hits, answered with a seventh-inning solo home run to left.
All the while USF’s Matt Hiserman was keeping the Zags off-balance with his slider, especially when GU had runners on base. Going into the seventh, Gonzaga had eights hits but had left seven on, including four in scoring position.
With one out in the fateful seventh, Chism grounded a single to center. Billy Moon followed by jumping on the first pitch and lined it to left. LeMasters came on hard, dove and the ball hit his glove, only to pop out when he hit the ground. It was Moon’s third hit of the day and his 14th double of the season.
“We thought we had been hitting it at them all weekend,” Edman said. “When we finally got that break, when Billy got on for us, it was like, ‘Yeah, OK, this is the inning.’”
It was also all for Hiserman as left-hander Elliott Waterman (6-2) came on to face the Edman, who hits from the right, with runners on second and third.
Edman, a .343 hitter who was still looking for his first hit of the series, picked on a 2-2 fastball and roped it down the line and off the base of the left-field fence. By the time Edman celebrated at second base, the score was tied at 4.
“Cameron did a good job, fought off some good pitches,” Machtolf said. “They tried to get him (with an inside pitch). He got jammed a little bit or I think it would have been a home run.”
Eric Lane followed with a soft single to center, Edman scored and GU had its first lead of the series. Five straight singles against reliever Cameron Love followed, giving the Zags a 7-4 lead.
That held up until the ninth when Gonzales struck out the first two hitters looking. The first one also led to the ejection of USF coach Nino Giarratano, who was tossed by home-plate umpire Mike Witty after saying something from just outside the dugout.
The Dons rallied without their coach, with back-to-back hits chasing Gonzales and bringing on closer Cody Martin.
The senior right-hander picked up his school-record 12th save, but it came after a run-scoring bullet off the right-field fence by pinch hitter Matt Chavez, a walk to load the bases and a diving catch behind the USF bullpen in left by Moon on Pete Lavin’s foul fly ball.
Machtolf said Gonzaga would start left-hander Tyler Olson (6-4, 3.95 earned run average), the junior from University High, on the mound today. USF was still undecided, though left-hander Jordan Remer (2-2, 4.05) is expected to get the call.