It was damp and dreary on a Spokane Friday night. The kind of drizzle that doesn’t get you soaked but definitely keeps you wet.
So what do you do if you’re the Gonzaga baseball team and you’re a win away from qualifying for the West Coast Conference tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons?
Why, you pull the tarps off of Coach Steve Hertz Field and you play baseball.
Backed by four solo home runs and strong start by Daniel Bies, the Zags (28-21, 15-10 WCC) punched their ticket for the conference tournament with a 5-3 win over Santa Clara (25-25, 11-14).
For a team that has relied heavily on pitching and defense to put itself in a position to reach the tournament, Gonzaga got plenty of surprising bang out of its lineup against Santa Clara starter Travis Howard, getting to him for all five runs on nine base hits, including all four homers.
Jack Machtolf got his first career hit as a Zag by crushing a two-out pitch off the scoreboard in right field to make it 2-0 in the second inning. Gunner Schubert, who had not homered all season, belted a pair of solo shots.
The much-heralded Gonzaga defense came through in timely fashion. Carson Brashear made a diving stop in the first inning and turned it into a double play. First baseman Jake Vieth snared a hard grounder in the ninth and turned it into a double play that sucked the life out of the Broncos.
“Our hitting has been coming around the last few weeks,” Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf said. “But pitching and defense, that’s what we hang our hat on.”
Bies provided much of that. The redshirt junior from Woodinville, Washington, grew up playing baseball in a steady drizzle, so Friday night’s conditions were nothing new for him.
“I have this thing I do before I pitch where I touch the bill of my cap,” Bies said. “It kept coming back wet and I would have to dry my hand off. After a while, I was keeping my hand hidden.”
What he didn’t have to hide was solid command that led to 10 strikeouts, giving him 104 for the season.
“I have two things going for me,” Bies said. “I had Austin Pinorini behind the plate and he makes me look better than I am. And I had (assistant coach) Brandon Harmon calling pitches and he was calling some great sequence for me.”
Bies tired in the seventh after throwing well more than 110 pitches. Santa Clara got two runs before he could close out the inning.
Lefty Justin Blatner could not get an out in the eighth and gave up a solo home run to the first batter he faced to cut the Gonzaga lead to 5-3. Calvin LeBrun came on with a man on to strike out Matt Smithwick, pick off the runner for the second out and fan Jake MacNichols for the third out and end the threat.
“We do that a lot – have Calvin follow me,” Bies said. “He is a great pitcher and it makes sense for him to pitch after me. I’m tall and right-handed, he’s shorter and a lefty. That just makes sense.”
Machtolf kept a stone face throughout the game, waiting to break out a smile until after the Zags had clinched a tournament berth – even when his son homered in the second inning.
“I was pretty happy for him,” he said. “I was glad to see him get that one. But we needed to stay focused on what we needed to do.”
Machtolf said he will always preach to his players the need to take things one game at a time, but clinching the tournament in the first of a three-game set feels good.
“I think that does take the pressure off nicely,” he said.
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