Lopes trail Texas A&M throughout Tuesday’s semifinal matchup en route to 8-3 loss
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
(Photo Courtesy: Alex Johnson, GCU Club Baseball)
Feeling the heat. In a lot of ways.
With the temperature on the field at Ting Stadium in Holly Springs, North Carolina well over 100 degrees throughout most of the game, the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team suffered their first loss of the 2019 National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Division I World Series at the hands of Texas A&M University, 8-3, Tuesday afternoon.
The loss forces an elimination game between the same two teams Wednesday to determine who advances to the tournament’s championship game Thursday night. The loss also snapped GCU’s winning streak at 14 games – the longest in the history of the program.
For the fourth-seeded Lopes, the heat wasn’t limited to the air temperature, which was an extremely humid 95 degrees at game time. The Lopes received solid pitching performances from their starting pitchers in the first two games of the tournament (Nick Hershey in Game 1, Matt McWilliams in Game 2), but after helping close out Florida State and Iowa with scoreless relief appearances in both games, Game 3 starter Eli Graham showed the effects of it Tuesday, struggling to find his rhythm. The second-seeded Aggies – who were playing their fourth game in five days after losing Game 1 Friday – jumped on Graham early. Cole Slone hit a one-out single in the top of the first inning, advanced to second base on a Graham wild pitch, then coasted home on Luke Johnson’s RBI double down the right field line to give Texas A&M a 1-0 lead.
The Lopes fell behind, 3-0, after two innings in the first of several moments that indicated it just wasn’t GCU’s day. With one out and Texas A&M’s Nick Povinelli on first base, Austin Nelson beat out a grounder to third base to avoid an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play. After Graham plunked Texas A&M’s Lorenzo Delgado to load the bases, Slone hit the next pitch into right field to score two more to extend the Aggies’ lead.
Just like Sunday’s comeback win against top-seeded Iowa, the pressure of an early deficit didn’t weigh on the Lopes for long. Malik Flores began a second-inning rally with a one-out single, and headed to third base two pitches later on Johnny Campbell’s line-drive single to left. Then Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol went into his bag of tricks to get the Lopes on the scoreboard, directing Campbell to steal second base on an 0-1 pitch. Campbell stole it successfully, but the Aggies didn’t agree, and when they started to protest, Warnol sent Flores home on a successful delayed steal to cut the deficit to 3-1.
In the fourth inning, the Lopes tied it at 3-3 by taking advantage of some rare wildness by Aggies’ starting pitcher Cameron Sides. Sides led off the inning by hitting both Reid Magnaghi and Flores with pitches to put the tying runs aboard with none out. After Campbell hit a towering fly-out to the warning track in center field to allow both runners to advance into scoring position, GCU’s Chasen Castilliano picked the perfect time to earn his first runs batted in of the tournament with a hard single to center field, scoring both runners to even things up.
Unfortunately for the Lopes, the tie ended 10 minutes later, and the bad luck began flowing. Graham went into the fifth having retired seven in a row, but was undone by a leadoff infield single by Nelson, hitting Delgado with a pitch for a second time and giving up a beautiful bunt single to Slone to load the bases. Johnson then smacked a 2-0 pitch right at Castilliano, but the Lopes’ right fielder lost the ball in the sun and it bounced right next to him, clearing the bases for a triple. The next batter, Garrett Kilcrease, hit a 3-2 ground ball to GCU’s David Macias at third base, who tried to nab Johnson at the plate, but the throw hit Johnson in the back and bounded to the backstop, allowing the run to score on the error, and staking the Aggies to a commanding 7-3 lead.
Lopes’ senior reliever Emilio Artica took over for Graham after the fifth and silenced the Texas A&M offense, retiring the first 10 to face him before giving up an unearned run in the ninth. Artica allowed the Lopes the chance to battle back a second time, but Sides stayed solid on the hill for the Aggies – allowing just six hits and three runs over seven innings – and every time the Lopes tried to rally in the later innings, close plays didn’t go their way.
The Lopes tried to chase Sides in the seventh after a leadoff walk to Taylor Brooks (and a Sides wild pitch that sent Brooks to second). Macias then hit a rope towards left field, but Johnson snagged the liner at shortstop, and nearly doubled Brooks off of second base. Zach Broussely then lined a shot past second base for a single, but Gilcrease’s throw from right field barely nailed a sliding Brooks at home plate, ending the threat, and drawing the ire of Warnol about the call.
The Lopes’ frustration continued to boil in the eighth as Flores led off the inning with a slow grounder to third base. The throw to first was high, pulling Texas A&M first baseman Rowe Medlin off the bag, and forcing him to make a sweeping tag that was originally determined to have missed Flores. After a 15-second discussion by the umpires, though, the ruling was overturned, sending Flores back to the dugout, and sending Warnol streaking across the infield to argue in vain.
By the time Macias was called out in the bottom of the ninth on a questionable third strike to end the game, the Lopes were more than incensed, and ready to head to the locker room to regroup for Wednesday.
Graham took the loss for GCU (19-4 overall) after allowing seven earned runs and seven hits in five innings, but Artica looked almost flawless in his four innings of work, allowing just two hits while striking out four. Flores was the main bright spot in GCU’s six-hit attack, going 2-for-3 with a double, reaching base three times and scoring twice. Johnson hit a single, double and triple for the Aggies (29-6 overall), knocking in four runs.
Now, the heat is on the Lopes in another way, since they’ll try to avoid the same fate that befell them a year ago, when they looked impressive in their first two games, then were undone twice by East Carolina to deprive them of their first-ever berth in the championship game.
The Lopes and Aggies will meet again tomorrow in what is dubbed the “if necessary” game, meaning the winner of the rematch heads to Thursday’s title game while the loser has the summer to ponder what could have been. Game time is 11:45 am Wednesday (Arizona time).
For the first time in the 19-year history of the tournament, the NCBA will provide a live simulcast of each game on its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CollClubSportsRadioNetwork/?hc_ref=SEARCH), and live stats on its website (http://www.clubbaseball.org/world-series/).