Down 5-0 against the best team in the league Sunday, Gonzaga’s season almost ended. But the Bulldogs stormed back to beat No. 23 Pepperdine, 13-10, and in doing so punched their ticket to this week’s West Coast Conference tournament in Stockton, California.
“It was like a (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fight where the guy comes back and you think he’s knocked out and sucks it up, and we sucked it up,” said outfielder Payden Cawley Lamb.
The win kept the Bulldogs out of a three-way tie with Santa Clara and San Diego for third place in the conference. Because of the WCC’s tiebreaker rules GU would have been the lone team left out of the four-team conference tournament.
The tournament begins on Thursday when the top-seeded Waves take on fourth-seeded Santa Clara, to be followed by GU’s matchup against Loyola Marymount. It is a double-elimination format, a modified version of the NCAA Regionals, and the championship game will be played on Saturday.
“Everybody has beaten everybody else in the tournament and everybody is very similar so it really comes down to who plays the best,” said GU coach Mark Machtolf. “I know it’s obvious but it’s the truth. Nobody is far superior so it is about who goes and plays hard, hits the hottest and pitches well.”
The champion will represent the WCC in the NCAA tournament.
Brandon Bailey will take the hill for the Bulldogs against LMU. The Lions took two of three games from the Bulldogs in Spokane earlier this season, but Bailey went the distance in a 2-0 loss.
The freshman right-hander did not pitch his senior season at Broomfield High in Colorado after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But he overcame a rusty start to finish 6-6 with a 3.53 earned-run average while leading the team with 54 strikeouts.
“He’s probably been the most consistent from a strike-throwing ability and throwing his secondary stuff over the plate,” Machtolf said. “Really, our three starters are all pretty close but I think Bailey is the one we want to run out there.”
He’ll face an LMU team that bats a collective .292 for the highest batting average in the tournament. While the Lions do not hit for much power they are adept at getting on base and advancing, leading the conference by a wide margin with 70 stolen bases this season.
The Lions have a pair of young phenoms. Center fielder Austin Miller was named the WCC freshman of the year after a season in which he hit .373 and led the league with 11 stolen bases in 14 attempts.
Shortstop David Fletcher, who Cawley Lamb describes as a “vacuum,” earned defensive player of the year honors and turned 21 double plays. He also had a strong season at the plate, batting .343.
“Their three, four and five hitters are really good,” Bailey said. “But honestly one through nine there isn’t a glaring hole in their lineup.”
Bailey was named First Team All-WCC, as were teammates Cawley Lamb and infielder Caleb Wood. Fletcher and Miller are joined by teammates Bret Dahlson and Colin Welmon, both pitchers.
Pepperdine looked like a juggernaut early in the season but has been vulner- able lately and barely held on to the top spot in the conference. The Waves lost seven of their last 12 games to close out the regular season and have dropped out of Baseball America’s Top-25 rankings.
However, the team boasts a rotation ideally suited to playoff baseball.
They posted a league-best 2.58 ERA and their pitching staff held opposing batters to a .235 average. Three Pepperdine pitchers were named to the preseason national pitcher of the year watch list.
They face an SCU team that snuck into the tournament thanks to a walk-off hit on Senior Day.