Lopes unable to dig out of early hole in 9-5 loss to Illinois in championship game Thursday
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
(Photo Courtesy: Alex Johnson, GCU Club Baseball)
One step short. But one step closer.
After getting strong performances on the mound throughout the first four games of the 2019 National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Division I World Series, the gas tank for the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team’s pitching staff hit empty Thursday night, allowing the University of Illinois offense to build an early lead, then run away late in winning the championship game, 9-5, at Ting Stadium in Holly Springs, North Carolina.
The loss stops the Lopes one win shy of their first-ever World Series title, but puts them one step further than their third-place finish of a year ago.
Despite playing their fifth game in the last six days, the Lopes’ bullpen hadn’t been stretched nearly as thin as the staffs of the other seven teams at the tournament. The performances of starting pitchers Nick Hershey (13 innings over two starts), Matt McWilliams (8 1/3 innings in his Sunday outing) and Eli Graham (five innings Tuesday despite pitching in relief in both of the first two games) put the Lopes in a great situation for the title game – especially if they could get one more strong outing.
Even though he reached the ninth inning in GCU’s 4-2 win Sunday over top-seeded University of Iowa, McWilliams threw just 104 pitches, giving the Lopes hope that there was still plenty left in the freshman’s arm for Thursday night. Unfortunately, McWilliams had fought a slight bit of back pain since then, and even though he said he felt good after warmups, the lack of movement in his pitches allowed the Illini offense – which came into the game as the tournament’s most potent – to hit McWilliams hard from the first inning on. Illini outfielder Matt Flach set the tone by lacing a single to left to lead off the first. Jack Trotter then hit a shot bound for left field, but GCU third baseman David Macias snagged the liner, then threw to first base to double up Flach. That didn’t deter Illinois, who used three more singles, a walk and a wild pitch to take a 2-0 lead after one inning.
Two more runs on three more hits – including an RBI ground-rule double by Flach – sent McWilliams to the showers after just two innings of work, and the Illini to a 4-0 lead. The choice of the Lopes’ first relief pitcher of the night was a good one by Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol, though. Cameron Kamphausen hit the hill in the third inning, and promptly no-hit the Illini for the next four innings.
That gave the Lopes’ offense the momentum it needed to wake up. In fact, the Lopes were only retired in order twice over the nine innings. The problem was they struggled to finish what they started.
The Lopes got on the board in the third by stringing three straight singles together to load the bases, and their hottest hitter of the tournament, Malik Flores, stroked a two-out liner through the left side to plate Taylor Brooks. Johnny Campbell threatened to tie the game when he took a 1-2 pitch to the deepest part of the park – only to have Flach run it down with an over-the-shoulder catch at the wall to leave the bases loaded.
The Lopes got right back to business in the fourth after Chasen Castilliano led off with a bloop single, beat the throw to second base on a beautiful sacrifice bunt from Jacob Tighe, then both runners moved up on a passed ball. After a ground out, a pop up and a fly-ball out later, though, only one scored, and another two runners were left stranded.
“It was frustrating,” said Warnol about leaving 11 men on base for the game. “That was the time we needed to get a base hit here, and a base hit there. Instead, we got a couple of pop-ups at the wrong times. We just didn’t get it done.”
As it had been throughout the tournament, the seventh inning was pivotal for GCU, but this night, it was for what the Lopes missed instead of what they capitalized on.
Still trailing, 4-2, the Lopes finally chased Illinois starting pitcher Charlie Van Dyke after Reid Magnaghi blooped Van Dyke’s 120th pitch of the night into shallow center field for a leadoff single. Two batters later, Zach Broussely missed tying the score by inches, smashing a double off the left field wall to plate Magnaghi, and close the deficit to a single run. Flores then stepped up and whacked a 3-2 pitch to deep left, but not enough to avoid being caught near the warning track for the second out. The next batter, Campbell, again made great contact on a 1-1 pitch, but lined it right to third base, and another threat was doused.
Lopes’ senior reliever Emilio Artica was assigned to keep the 4-3 deficit intact for the bottom of the seventh, and started strong after getting a comebacker to the mound, then seeing Flach nailed trying to steal second base after a one-out single. The next pitch re-opened the door for the Illini as Artica plunked Trotter. After Matt Davis walked, Ben Samborn uncorked on a full-count pitch over Magnaghi’s head in left field, scoring a pair, and swinging the momentum permanently away from Grand Canyon (20-5 overall), since none of the three relievers they used after Kamphausen could duplicate the same magic.
“Since I knew the Illini had seen Cameron twice through the order, my thought process was that it was time to go to the next guy,” Warnol said. “Our relief pitching (after that) just couldn’t hold them. If we’d held them to one or two runs in those last two innings, we would’ve had an opportunity (to come back again).”
The Illini touched Artica, Graham (pitching in his fourth game of the tournament) and even Hershey for three more runs in the eighth to take the suspense out of the outcome. The Lopes’ senior trio of Magnaghi, Macias and Broussely mounted one last offensive in the ninth to plate two more GCU runs, but the tying run never got to the plate. Castilliano’s grounder to second base ended the game, and Illinois celebrated their first national title in their eight trips to the tournament.
Fittingly, the senior-laden top of the lineup accounted for all but two of the Lopes’ 11 hits on the night, with Magnaghi and Macias leading the way with three hits each, and Broussely accounting for three RBI.
McWilliams (8-1) suffered his only loss of the season, allowing four earned runs and seven hits in his two innings of work. Van Dyke (6-0) also allowed seven hits and three earned runs in getting the win for his six innings of work for the Illini (27-4 overall). Illinois’ Matt Davis, who went 3-for-4 on the night with two runs scored and two RBI, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Unlike many teams that travel together to and from national tournaments, because GCU’s spring semester ended over a month ago, Thursday night will truly be the last night for the team to celebrate their season with each other, since the various members will fly to their homes in various parts of the country to begin their long-overdue summers tomorrow.
Which means the disappointment of the night will turn to appreciation of the team’s legacy in the morning.
“It’s hard to look at that now with the loss tonight, but we definitely now have an expectation to be at the World Series frequently,” said Warnol. “We’ve had four years of club baseball, but three years at the Division I level, and we’ve been to the tournament twice.
“It was a good step. Not exactly where we wanted to be, but definitely one more big step forward.”