6-run 7th inning blows open close game as Lopes eliminate Texas A&M, 8-2, Wednesday
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
(Photo Courtesy: Alex Johnson, GCU Club Baseball)
No room for error. Until the 7th inning.
After recording just one error in their previous three games combined, the defense for the Texas A&M University Aggies went south in the seventh inning, committing three errors in the span of four plays in Wednesday’s semifinal elimination game of the 2019 National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Division I World Series. The resourceful Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team took advantage of all of them to blow open a tie game and eliminate the Aggies, 8-2.
The win puts the Lopes in Thursday’s championship game for the first time in the program’s history.
After finishing third last year in their first-ever trip to the tournament, the Lopes had experienced plenty of déjà vu in their return to Ting Stadium in Holly Springs, North Carolina. They were again the No. 4 seed, and like 2018, won their first two games in impressive fashion – including knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation, the University of Iowa, with a ninth-inning rally Sunday night.
However, that’s where they hoped the flashbacks would stop, since they never got out of the semifinal round a year ago, dropping a pair of games to East Carolina University to exit the tournament. After managing just six hits in an 8-3 loss to the Aggies yesterday that put GCU back in the elimination round again, Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol got some advice about his batting order – in an unusual but timely place.
“I was doing laundry last night, and (senior reliever) Emilio (Artica) came up to my room and said, ‘You know that (senior outfielder) Reid (Magnaghi) doesn’t like batting in the (cleanup) spot (in the batting order), right?’” Warnol said at Wednesday’s postgame press conference. “I trust Emilio, since he’s got a good feeling about what the guys are doing. We looked at our options, and Emilio texted me in the middle of the night with a prospective starting lineup. I hated taking Zach (Broussely) out of the three-spot, but it took pressure off Reid.”
Magnaghi – who was second on the team in hitting during the regular season – had struggled in North Carolina with just two hits in 12 at-bats during the first three games. The shift to the No. 2 spot in the order, though, paid immediate dividends as Magnaghi singled in his first at-bat, then advanced to third base on a David Macias single in the first inning. Broussely then hit a blooper to center that forced out Macias at second base, but allowed Magnaghi to score, and the Lopes were off and running with a 1-0 lead. The Lopes added another run an inning later with a Taylor Brooks RBI ground-rule double to right field that plated Chasen Castilliano for a 2-0 edge.
The insurance was important for starting pitcher Nick Hershey, who was trying to throw his second straight shutout of the tournament, but whose stamina was a question mark after a 117-pitch performance Saturday.
“I knew the offense was going to back me up,” Hershey said. “I knew that giving up one or two runs was no big deal, because I know that we’re going to put up a bunch like you saw today. That just helps me stay calm and focused so I can do my job.”
Hershey was both masterful and economical at the same time, throwing just 14 of 56 pitches out of the strike zone in the first four innings, and allowing one Texas A&M runner to get past first base during that time.
“We had to keep his pitch count low, so we went right at them,” said Warnol about Hershey’s pregame strategy. “There were five or six of their guys that were right on the inside line (of the plate), looking to yank a ball, so we gave them inside pitches to see what they could do. Reid was busy in left field, and Johnny (Campbell) had some balls hit to him in center, but luckily, they hit them mainly at us today.”
Hershey’s only trouble came in the fifth, when after retiring the first two batters to face him, he gave up a Lorenzo Delgado single, hit Cole Slone with a pitch, then gave up back-to-back RBI singles to Luke Johnson and Garrett Kilcrease. Suddenly, the Lopes’ lead was gone.
That’s when déjà vu began to work its magic in the Lopes’ dugout.
“We knew we’d been here before, and tried not to let that happen (again),” said Warnol. “We tried not to talk negatively and just play a baseball game. Last year, (we were called) the new kids on the block, and we’re not that anymore. We’ve been here, and I think that helped us.”
The seventh inning had been a turning point for the Lopes in every game of the tournament, including Tuesday’s loss, since it was the only tournament game that they hadn’t posted at least a run in that frame. The ‘winds of change’ began immediately in the seventh Wednesday as Magnaghi led off with his second single of the day. Macias followed with a dribbler that found its way into center field, and Malik Flores cashed in Magnaghi with a ground-rule double to the wall in left center field to chase Aggies’ starter Jason Pueblo. A&M reliever John Najvar was immediately instructed to intentionally walk Johnny Campbell to load the bases, and set up a possible double play.
Déjà vu then came calling on Texas A&M – in a terrible way.
The Aggies’ only other loss of the tournament featured three errors in the opening round Friday against Boston College, and they’d committed just one miscue since. Wednesday, Najvar got the ground ball he wanted – a chopper off the bat of Castilliano. Aggies’ first baseman Rowe Medlin scooped it up quickly, then aimed to nab Macias at home, but his throw sailed high over the catcher’s head, allowing both Macias and Flores to score.
Two pitches later, it was Najvar’s turn to field a ground ball in front of the mound and throw it home, but the throw hit off the top of catcher Dalton Warren’s glove and trickled away far enough for Campbell to score. After Kevin Bebout brought home the fifth run of the inning with a ground ball that the Aggies’ second baseman, Slone, could only make a play at first base with, error No. 3 came in the form of a routine ground ball that Slone wrapped up easily, then threw it right past first base to the wall, allowing Easton Babe to score from second base.
Texas A&M sought to quickly get back in the game by loading the bases after two walks and a hit batter in the eighth inning, but GCU’s Cameron Kamphausen escaped by getting Austin Nelson to ground into a force play at second base to end the rally. The Aggies again got the leadoff man aboard in the ninth against GCU reliever Jacob Tighe, but Slone’s grounder to shortstop turned into a 6-4-3 double play. When Broussely squeezed the throw from Babe on Luke Johnson’s game-ending ground out, the 2018 flashbacks were gone, and the berth in Thursday’s title game was reality.
“The veterans thought about last year, but the new guys didn’t know much about that feeling (of going home in the semifinals),” said Warnol. “We kept playing the game, knowing that last night can go away, and we made it go away.”
Flores led GCU’s eight-hit attack with his third multiple-hit game of the tournament. The Lopes’ junior catcher went 3-for-5 with two doubles, a run scored, and a run batted in. Magnaghi certainly justified the lineup shift, since he and the man hitting after him, Macias, had a pair of hits each, and scored three times between them. Hershey posted his second tournament win by scattering six Aggies’ hits and two runs over six innings, striking out eight and not walking a single batter. Pueblo took the loss for Texas A&M (29-7 overall), allowing eight hits and four walks while giving up five runs (two of them unearned).
The victory helped the Lopes hit the 20-win plateau for the second straight year, but it’s the all-important win No. 21 that GCU will focus on now. The Lopes (20-4 overall) will now face a team, No. 3 seed University of Illinois (26-4 overall), whose road to the title game has mirrored GCU’s. The Illini breezed past Oregon State University and Boston College by scoring 22 runs in their first two games, were shut down by Florida State in Tuesday’s semifinal, 1-0, before avenging the loss with a 4-3 win Wednesday over the Seminoles. Illinois is making its eighth appearance at the World Series, but only its second trip to the title game (they lost to Colorado State University, 9-5, in 2005). The Lopes will grace the title game for the first time ever.
First pitch for the winner-take-all matchup is set for 4 pm Thursday (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/).