Lopes extend winning streak to 9 games to punch ticket for NCBA SoPac Regional Tournament
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
“Win our last nine games, and we’re in.” GCU Club Baseball Head Coach Rich Warnol, April 9, 2019
The cocky prediction of a head coach about how his team will get to the playoffs? The unrealistic expectations of a team desperately trying to defend its conference title? The impassioned plea from a coach to a program mired in the middle of its conference?
None of the above. Merely a calm, simple statement to focus the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team on the requirements of reaching the postseason.
The postgame celebration Sunday afternoon at Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark – which included a Gatorade shower of Warnol – signaled to all in attendance that that calm, simple statement became a prophecy as the Lopes completed the task, extending their winning streak to nine games with a seven-inning, 12-2 “mercy rule” victory over Northern Arizona University. The win completed a three-game sweep of the Lumberjacks, and clinched the 2nd straight National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Southern Pacific South Conference title for the Lopes. The win Sunday put the Lopes’ final regular season record in the SoPac South at 12-3, which tied them with Arizona State University atop the conference standings. However, by virtue of the Lopes owning the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Sun Devils after beating ASU twice in three games this season, the Lopes got the nod for the conference crown, and earned an automatic berth in the NCBA SoPac Regional Tournament May 10 through 12 in Lancaster, California.
“We knew we could do it. However, no matter how talented you are, winning nine games in a row in any baseball league is very tough to do,” said a drenched Warnol after Sunday’s win. “It’s nice to be able to squeeze into (the tournament). Sometimes things just have to fall your way, and it did in a couple of games during this stretch.”
The weekend series resembled that last statement, since Sunday’s game was nearly rendered meaningless if not for the resiliency of the Lopes’ squad, who battled from behind in both of Saturday’s games to sweep the doubleheader.
Game 1: GCU 7, NAU 3
The Lopes’ offense had plenty of trouble adjusting to the pitching of Lumberjacks’ starter Harrison Goebel, who gave GCU its first run by issuing two walks, then uncorking two wild pitches in the 3rd inning to allow Lopes’ 1st baseman Zach Broussely to score, but still only yielded a single Lopes’ hit in the first four innings. Lopes’ starting pitcher Nick Hershey matched that with four innings of shutout ball, but faltered in the 5th, allowing an RBI single to NAU’s David Lucia and a 2-run blast to conference home run leader Justin O’Connor to fall behind, 3-1. The Lopes’ offense awakened just minutes later, sending 11 men to the plate in the bottom of the 5th, and chasing Goebel by stringing together five straight hits to score six runs and take the lead for good.
Malik Flores and David Macias each had a pair of hits to pace GCU at the plate, and Hershey went the full 7 innings on the hill, scattering 7 hits while striking out six NAU batters to up his record to 5-1. Goebel (1-3) struck out 8 Lopes’ hitters in his 4 2/3 innings, but was done in by five walks, four wild pitches and 2 hit batters that allowed five earned runs.
Game 2: GCU 7, NAU 6
The control problems of the Lumberjacks’ staff only worsened in Game 2, yet the Lopes nearly let them off the hook by stranding 10 runners on base in seven innings. NAU starter Kevin Joyce struggled mightily in the first inning, walking the first three men to face him, then after posting a strikeout, walked GCU’s Reid Magnaghi to force in a run, and gave up a bases-clearing double to Flores on the next pitch to stake the Lopes to a 4-0 lead. Seven NAU hits over the next three innings – coupled with three GCU errors – led to six Lumberjacks’ runs (four of them unearned), and suddenly, the Lopes were down to their final nine outs and trailing, 6-5.
That’s when GCU starting pitcher Matt McWilliams and the Lopes’ defense calmed down, pulling off two double plays in the final three innings, allowing the Lopes’ batters to battle back by taking advantage of NAU miscues. In the 6th, after Easton Babe got aboard on an NAU error, Taylor Brooks bunted Babe into scoring position, and with two out, Azael Lopez-Chairez tied the game at 6-6 with an RBI single. After a 1-6-3 double play ended an NAU scoring threat in the 7th, Johnny Campbell singled with one out in the bottom of the 7th, stole second base, then scored the game-winner on a two-out single by Brooks to keep the Lopes’ playoff hopes alive.
Flores and Campbell combined for four hits and 3 RBI in eight at-bats, while McWilliams upped his record to 5-0 with a complete-game eight-hitter.
Game 3: GCU 12, NAU 2 (F/7)
The emotion and suspense began building early Sunday morning when the team discovered that ASU had indeed swept their three-game series with San Diego State University, meaning that a Lopes’ loss would hand the Sun Devils the conference title. The emotions then flowed throughout the pregame Senior Day festivities, honoring Emilio Artica, Zach Broussely, Cody Hopper, Alex Johnson, Cameron Kamphausen and David Macias.
While every one of the six seniors contributed in some way towards the win, it was the two first-year Lopes – Flores and Campbell – that again laid down the clutch hits that put the Lopes over the top, and end the suspense.
“Since last weekend, Malik and Johnny have just been hot,” remarked Warnol. “I started putting them in the lineup back-to-back last weekend, and now, I don’t know how I can break that combination up. With their speed, power and being able to do anything on the basepaths, it’s fun to have them right after each other in the lineup.”
After a scoreless first three innings, the Lopes exploded in the 4th for five runs, thanks to a two-run triple by Flores, followed by RBI singles from Campbell and Hopper. Campbell would tack on two more in the 5th with a towering homer to left field, then the two would add three more to the Lopes’ side of the scoreboard in the 6th with a Flores sacrifice fly to plate Broussely, and a Campbell two-run single. The Lopes would invoke the mercy rule in the 7th without taking the bats off their shoulders, scoring the final two runs courtesy of five straight walks and an NAU error to end the game, and begin the celebration on the Brazell turf for the second year in a row.
“I had faith in this team from the beginning,” said a jubilant Flores, who joined the program in the fall. “We’re a bunch of hard-working guys. We struggled a bit in the beginning, but I knew we could come back because we have a lot of hot bats and talented guys. I’m just glad that we came together and ran the table to finish it out.”
Lopes’ starter Eli Graham got the win on the mound with five innings of 2-hit ball, and Artica and Kamphausen combined to allow just one hit and one run in two innings of relief work.
The Lopes (15-3 overall, 12-3 SoPac South) now have eleven days of preparation before heading to Lancaster for the 2019 SoPac Regional Tournament. GCU will find out who will fill out the rest of the four-team field for the three-day, double-elimination tournament in the next few days, and will begin play on Friday, May 10.