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Zags watch WCC title slip away

Dons win rubber game, earn NCAA tourney spot

One pitch for a title.

Kyle Zimmer delivers a two-out, 3-2 fastball to Gonzaga University designated hitter Andy Hunter.

The ball explodes off the barrel and whistles toward left as Billy Moon and Cameron Edman, the latter carrying the tying run, sprint off the bases.

The 1,364 packed into Patterson Baseball Complex on Sunday start to rise, ready to explode as well.

Then it’s over.

Third baseman Stephen Yarrow, he of six strikeouts and a lonely infield single in the three-game showdown series, ends it, leaping to his left, spearing the possible game changer and giving the Dons a 4-2 West Coast Conference championship-clinching victory.

“We hit some balls hard in crucial situations, but just right at them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf said 15 minutes later in front of a still-full GU dugout, many players showing their emotions. “I think that last one rolls to the wall and probably scores the tying run.

“That’s baseball. Three inches either way and I think we’re still playing.”

Yarrow’s play, one of innumerable crucial ones in the series that decided the WCC’s automatic NCAA tournament berth, ended what was the last of numerous opportunities the Zags had. It also ended GU’s regular season with a 32-19-1 record, 15-6 in WCC play.

In a replay of Saturday, when GU rallied for a 7-5 victory, the Dons built a 3-0 lead in the second inning.

Nik Balog opened the scoring with a home run to right-center field, but the next two runs yielded by Gonzaga starter Tyler Olson (6-5) were the result of two infield hits, another high chopper over a drawn-in infield and a humpback liner to right.

“A chopper and a jam job,” is how Machtolf saw it.

After the tough second, Olson, the junior lefty from University High, retired 14 consecutive Dons, though one of those was a Connor Bernatz fifth-inning liner off his right shin. It knocked Olson down, but didn’t stop him from getting the out at first from his seat.

“I’m proud of him,” Machtolf said of Olson’s six-hit, four-strikeout performance. “He gives up three, but he kept his composure and did a great job.”

With one out in the seventh, and USF (31-23, 16-5) still leading 3-1, the Dons’ Adam Clear hit a high hopper to third, which Eric Lane misplayed and threw away. With Clear at second, Machtolf went to closer Cody Martin, who had recorded his school-record 12th save Saturday.

Martin gave up a single to Jason Mahood and an RBI sacrifice fly to Pete Lavin before ending the threat. The senior then walked a tightrope the rest of the way, but got out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth and a bases-loaded, two-out one in the ninth.

But Martin’s gymnastics had nothing on those of winner Jordan Remer (3-2). Relieving starter Jonathan Abramson in the fourth, the left-handed Remer seemed to decide he needed the challenge of pitching with the bases full.

“Got himself in trouble and got himself out,” said USF coach Nino Giarratano just prior to receiving the obligatory Gatorade bath. “My heart was in my throat since the third inning. We couldn’t execute and get (more) runs, (so) 4-2 just held up.”

The Zags loaded the bases with one out in the seventh on two walks and a hit batter, but Remer struck out Tyler Chism, who drove in GU’s first run in the third, and Moon.

The Zags loaded the bases with one out in the eighth, but Remer got Marco Gonzales to pop out to left and Steven Halcomb on a called third strike.

In the ninth, Thomas Henderson opened by coaxing Remer’s third walk before the lefty hit Chism to bring the tying run to the plate. With the count 2-0 against the left-handed-hitting Moon, Giarratano had seen enough and called on right-hander Zimmer, Friday’s starter and winner.

Zimmer, who threw 101 pitches in the win, got Moon to ground into a force out at second. Edman fouled off six two-strike pitches before delivering an RBI single to left, cutting the lead to two and putting runners at first and second.

Lane, who had three hits, stroked the ball well, but flew out to center. That brought up Hunter, who replaced Clayton Eslick in the sixth and had flied out twice.

A 1-2 curveball just missed. A check swing on a 2-2 fastball was close, but a ball. Two foul balls followed before the fateful last delivery.

“I’m just proud of what our kids accomplished,” Giarratano said. “Coming on the road, playing tough and making pitches and plays.”

Despite being ranked much of the season, despite nonconference wins over highly-ranked Texas A&M and UC Irvine, and despite leading the WCC much of the season, Machtolf doesn’t expect the Zags, with an RPI of 71 coming into the weekend, to earn an at-large berth. But he’s hoping.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “But you never know.”