Is there such a thing as a time-delayed hunch?
Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf, rarely one to fiddle with his lineup, picked an interesting time to do so, springing freshman Chris Sturdivant from the bench Friday night for the opening game of the Bulldogs’ title-deciding West Coast Conference baseball series against Loyola Marymount.
And it paid off – but not until Saturday.
Sturdivant smoked a ninth-inning double into the gap in left-center field to score Tyson Van Winkle with the winning run in a tense 5-4 victory in front of a crowd of 1,029 that brought the Zags their first WCC regular-season title – and next weekend’s best-of-3 league championship series to Patterson Baseball Complex.
The Bulldogs (32-15, 14-6) won a Coast division title in 2001 when the WCC was split in half, but haven’t won a full-league regular-season title since taking the old Nor-Pac in 1981. That year also marked their last appearance in the NCAA tournament, a bid to which will be at stake in next week’s playoffs.
“We’ve come this far, there’s no point in stopping now,” first baseman Ryan Wiegand said. “It’s a lot of fun being out here right now with the group of guys we have and all the fans and with the way we’re playing.”
The Lions (29-27, 12-8) still have some work to do. If they lose today’s 1 p.m. series finale, there’s the potential for a three-way tie with Pepperdine and San Francisco for second – and a two-way tie even if they win.
Gonzaga had managed to squander an early 4-0 lead before rallying against the Lions’ top reliever, right-hander Xavier Esquivel (2-4), whose deliberate pace stretched out the drama.
Chris Heid opened the bottom of the ninth by skying a single to short center, but was forced at second on Van Winkle’s ground ball. Esquivel pitched around Wiegand to bring up Sturdivant – back on the bench Saturday afternoon until being called upon to pinch run in the eighth.
“I was just looking for a fastball – it didn’t matter where,” said Sturdivant, who mashed his winner on a 3-1 pitch. “I felt like I was late on a fastball earlier in the count and I wanted to make sure I got that foot down.”
Tough spot for a freshman with only 40 collegiate at-bats to his credit. But Machtolf had inserted him into the starting lineup for Friday’s 4-3 victory, figuring his right-handed bat might be more effective against LMU’s Lee Roberts.
“So that gave him some at-bats in a big game,” Machtolf said. “And he redshirted a year, so he’s been around a little more than your average freshman. He’s a good hitter.”
Before that, the game followed a pattern eerily similar to Friday’s opener. Wiegand knocked in runs with singles in the first and third innings off LMU starter Alex Gillingham, and Grant Kveder’s double launched what looked to be a breakout in the fourth.
The Zags cobbled together three more hits to get a pair of runs, but Van Winkle’s hard line drive went straight to shortstop Shon Roe for a double play.
The Lions started chipping away – an unearned run in the fifth, two in the sixth off starter Steven Ames and finally the tying run in the eighth when Jonathan Johnson chopped a single to right field off reliever Cody Martin (5-4) and Ollie Enos was able to just slide around Van Winkle’s tag. But it could have come apart much earlier had Ames not fanned two batters to escape a bases-loaded threat fueled by his two misplayed bunts.
“It was pretty rough,” said Ames, who battled through seven innings of peaks and valleys. “But I put myself in that situation, so it was my job to get us out of there.”
The Zags broke out of some recent hitting woes with 13 hits, including four doubles.
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