Defending national champion East Carolina ends Lopes’ storied run with 6-2 win in elimination semifinals
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
What do you do when your must-win World Series matchup isn’t going your way, and you need to change the momentum?
Pray for rain.
Fortunately for the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team, their prayers were answered during the elimination semifinal game of the National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Division I World Series Wednesday night. The skies opened up over Ting Stadium in Holly Springs, North Carolina, in the middle of the 3rd inning, with GCU trailing defending national champion East Carolina University, and the delay lasted a full hour.
Unfortunately for the Lopes, the hole they dug before the rains came was too much to overcome as ECU held off a couple of late GCU rallies to win, 6-2. The victory sends the Pirates to their third consecutive NCBA World Series Championship game Thursday night against 7th-seeded Penn State University. The loss ends a phenomenal run for the Lopes, and hands them a 3rd-place finish in their first-ever trip to the national tournament.
The Lopes had spent the first five days of the tournament looking like the fresher, more energetic, and downright happy-go-lucky squad, and according to Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol, they were just as loose as any other game in pregame warmups tonight. On this night, though, they were bested by a team that showed the experience and hunger that has made the Pirates the perennial powerhouses of NCBA Baseball, and a team that knew all too well about the intensity of elimination games-something GCU experienced in the Southern Pacific Regionals, but hadn’t had to face in North Carolina until Wednesday.
The Pirates jumped on the first mistake the Lopes made, and it gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. In the bottom of the 1st inning, after Tyler Petersen led off with a single, ECU’s Tyler Sholar lifted a shallow fly ball to GCU center fielder Matt Dolewski, who reeled in the catch, then tried to double up Petersen by firing a throw to first base. The throw went past Lopes’ first baseman Zach Broussely and rolled to the dugout, allowing Sholar to head to second. The play seemed to rattle Lopes’ starting pitcher Ryan Van Meeteren, who then walked Jake Merzigian, gave up an RBI single to Jake Kleifges, walked the next two batters to force in the 2nd run, then gave up the killer hit: a bases-clearing double by ECU outfielder Dylan Dowdy past a diving Dolewski in the left center field gap to put GCU in a 5-0 hole.
Knowing that any more damage could likely result in his team heading home one day earlier than desired, Warnol didn’t wait long to make a pitching change, bringing in staff ace Jarrett McDonald to start the 2nd inning. McDonald-who fired a brilliant complete-game win Sunday to get the Lopes to the semifinals-showed the effects of that 98-pitch outing, allowing three hits in the 2nd inning-including a two-out RBI infield single by the Pirates’ Coleman Barnacascel-to increase the ECU lead to 6-0.
On the other side of the pitching coin, ECU starter Ryan Gosney was busy trying to follow up on the historic, 21-strikeout, 177-pitch complete-game performance by fellow starter Logan Walden the night before. Gosney-who actually recorded the final out of ECU’s 3-1 win Tuesday for the save-moved quickly through the Lopes’ lineup in the first three innings. Even when GCU’s Justin Horton got his team into the hit column with a one-out single in the 2nd, Gosney rectified the problem one pitch later by getting the Lopes’ Kadin Breeze to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.
Then the teams would scamper to the locker rooms for a 59-minute rain delay in the middle of the 3rd inning. Despite the long wait and the fact that he was working on just two days’ rest, McDonald took the hill after the storm with better results, retiring the Pirates in order in the bottom of the inning. That edge wouldn’t last, though, as the Pirates loaded the bases with three straight singles in the 4th to chase McDonald. Warnol sent in his Game 1 starter Joel Thomas, who masterfully got out of the jam unscathed with back-to-back strikeouts of Barnacascel and Jordan Maye. Thomas would finish his season with one of the Lopes’ best relief outings of the year, allowing just a single hit in 4 2/3 innings of shutout ball.
Even with the Pirates’ offense silenced for the final seven innings, the Lopes still tried in vain to solve the two-night riddle of ECU pitching, flirting with having a big inning but never quite getting there. In the 5th inning, Michael Doty and Horton got the inning started with back-to-back singles, and Breeze got a measure of redemption with a sacrifice fly to left field to bring Doty home with GCU’s first run. Unfortunately, the chance to really slice into the deficit slipped through the Lopes’ fingers as with runners in scoring position and only one out, Gosney struck out Anthony Alamillo, and retired David Macias on an infield popup to end the threat. The sixth inning was much of the same, with the Lopes again putting the first two on base, and getting a two-out single from Doty to score another run, but leaving runners and 2nd and 3rd when Horton couldn’t hold up on a checked swing on a full-count pitch.
The seventh inning would prove to be the ‘make-or-break’ inning for the Lopes. The first two hitters went quietly, but Macias got things started with a single to center, then scampered to 3rd base on a Taylor Brooks double down the right field line. Up stepped Dolewski, who turned on the first pitch he saw from Gosney and sent in to deep right field, where Dowdy-making only his 2nd start of the tournament-tracked it down at the wall, and held on to the ball as he crashed into the fence to foil the rally.
“In the 5th and 6th, when we left those guys on, we got a little frustrated,” said Warnol. “Every time you get guys on base-especially when we hadn’t had that many opportunities the past couple of days-and leave them there, it’s definitely tough. Then Matt crushes the ball, and that guy makes a great play at the wall. After that, you start wondering, ‘What can you do?'”
That took the final wind out of the Lopes’ sails as Gosney used just 20 pitches to retire the side in order in both the 8th and 9th innings to punch his team’s ticket for the title game Thursday. And even though this was the Lopes’ first appearance in a World Series, the Pirates had to pull off a first to end GCU’s deep tournament run-a run few thought they could pull off.
“This is the first team that has beat us twice in a ‘series’,” Warnol pointed out after the game. “Since we’ve been around, in our two years at the D1 level, we’ve never lost two games in a three-game series. Ultimately, we’ve been the best in our league. We thought last year’s team was like this team, and just didn’t get the opportunity.” (The 2016-17 team finished one game short of the conference title, and didn’t receive the at-large bid to regionals.)
Horton and Doty-playing in his final game as a Lope-each had 2 of the Lopes’ six hits off Gosney (3-0), who struck out seven in earning his second win of the tournament. Petersen, Kleifges and Gabe Tippett each had a pair of hits in the Pirates’ 10-hit attack as ECU (25-4 overall) tagged Van Meeteren with his only loss of the season. The Lopes’ junior was tagged for five of the six runs (all five unearned) on only three hits and four walks.
So when the first pitch is thrown Thursday night to commence the title matchup, the Lopes (24-4 overall) will likely be in the Ting Stadium stands-watching as patrons. When they do, they’ll get a chance to soak up some compliments from the tournament faithful-many of whom didn’t even know GCU Club Baseball existed before they picked up a game program last week. They know now.
“Our guys weren’t really concerned about what anyone else thought when we got here,” Warnol said. “We knew what we were, and we weren’t worried about everyone else. Tonight, even when they were down 6-0 after 2, our guys still thought they’d come back. We’ve proved how good we are.”