Winds in the teens and 20s gave the flags flying above Hertz Field a good stretching Thursday evening, threatening to turn pop flies into a long-ball funhouse.
A false flag, as it happened.
But speaking of flags …
The Gonzaga Bulldogs raised another one, at least metaphorically, stoning the San Diego Toreros 10-0 behind seven shutout innings by Alek Jacob and five RBIs by Brett Harris to win the West Coast Conference baseball championship – and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament that goes with it this year.
“It feels absolutely incredible,” said Harris. “Having the season cut short last year, this got taken away from us and the same core of guys wanted to come back and win a championship.”
Now the Zags wait to hear if their post-season starts at home, as one of the field’s 16 designated host sites.
That word comes down on Sunday, with the rest of the NCAA bracket – and Gonzaga’s first opponent – announced on Monday. In the meantime are two more games against the Toreros on Friday and Saturday.
But the statement came Thursday, if not immediately.
For four innings, the Zags were stifled by USD righthander Jake Miller, the WCC leader in earned run average who faced the minimum 12 batters – Ernie Yake cut down stealing after a leadoff single. But then Andrew Orzel and Guthrie Morrison opened the Gonzaga fifth with sharp hits, and just that quickly Miller lost command – of the strike zone and the game.
“Miller’s a good pitcher, but I thought we were putting good swings on pitches and didn’t have much to show for it,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf. “We get a couple of hits to get it going and he wasn’t ahead as much, and we were hitting in advantage counts.”
By the time the inning was over, the Toreros were on their third pitcher and the Zags had a 5-0 lead – and a giant step toward their first WCC title since 2018. Two of the RBIs belonged to Harris on a sharp single.
But he felt there was more to that game-breaking rally than good swings and being ahead in the count.
“Alek had a great top of the fifth, a quick 1-2-3 and we know we’ve got to go and score some runs for him,” Harris said. “He was keeping us in there against a good pitcher.
“Every Friday whenever he’s on the bump, he’s going to give you everything he’s got, and it’s fun playing defense behind him. We’re very confident in Alek and he brings it every time.”
Jacob provided his own exclamation point by choking off the Toreros with a 1-2-3 sixth, and then worked out of some trouble in the seventh for his seventh victory against a single loss. Against the WCC’s most disciplined lineup – more than 100 strikeouts fewer than any other team – the North Central alum fanned eight and walked just one.
And in case the Toreros had any notion of making trouble against Gonzaga bullpen, Harris and Orzel crushed home runs – not the tortured pop-fly variety – in a three-run seventh.
That allowed the Bulldogs to anticipate their post-game dogpile – though it was something slightly short of that. There were hugs and handshakes and happiness in a scrum that moved from between the mound and the first base line out to the far basepath.
If it was a bit muted, that’s because the Zags still have something to play for. A strong finish in the final two games against USD could cement that host’s role – Gonzaga being just one of four western teams in contention to be a regional site.
“My main message to them was, ‘Let’s delay the celebration,’ ” said Machtolf. “Dogpile and let that be sufficient for now. We still have a lot to play for in these two games against San Diego. The whole situation is huge for us and our program.”
The Zags, ranked 14th in one collegiate poll, ran their record to 33-15. The second-place Toreros are 31-12.