SPOKANE, Wash.—Needing one win entering a three-game series against No. 18 BYU, the Gonzaga baseball team wasted little time in clinching a berth to the West Coast Conference Championships, taking a big lead early en route to a 10-2 win Thursday night at Patterson Baseball Complex & Washington Trust Field.
The Gonzaga offense jumped out on BYU starter Maverik Buffo quickly, tagging him for three runs in the bottom of the first. Left fielder Sam Brown led off with a single, and he quickly moved to third on a wild pitch and a ground ball. Center fielder Tyler Frost drove the senior in with a single to right center, and he himself came home when Justin Jacobs found the gap in left center for a double. The hit parade continued with Jeff Bohling, who ripped a shot through the right side. Jacobs steamed home on the play, beating the throw from BYU right fielder Brock Hale for the score.
In the third, the Bulldogs blew the game wide open by just passing the torch. The inning’s first nine batters reached base, all nine Zags either hitting a single or drawing a walk. Gonzaga scored six runs before Buffo could register an out in the frame. In all, the Zags sent 11 men to the plate in the third inning. Buffo ended the frame with a strikeout and a double play, but the outburst gave the Zags a 9-0 lead, one that was more than enough for Gonzaga starter Eli Morgan.
BYU pulled one back immediately as Hale led the fourth off with a solo blast to left, but the Zags got that run back in the bottom of the frame. Roberts drew a one-out walk for a base runner and moved to second when the Cougar defense couldn’t turn a double play on a grounder. In the next at-bat, Jake Vieth doubled to right field, allowing the GU catcher to score from first for a 10-1 lead.
Hale scored the game’s final run, another solo homer to lead off the eighth inning. That was all Morgan would allow, however, as he largely stymied the hot-hitting BYU lineup. He scattered eight hits with the only two BYU runs coming off Hale’s four-baggers. The Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., native struck out 10 Cougar batters on the night, fanning at least one in seven of the 7.2 innings he pitched. The ultra-quality start gave Morgan the win, his ninth of the season.
· With the win, the Bulldogs guaranteed themselves a top-four finish in the WCC’s regular season standings and a berth in the conference’s tournament that will run May 25-27 in Stockton, Calif. The winner of that double-elimination tournament will receive the WCC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Regionals. Every game of that tournament will be played at Banner Island Ballpark, home of the Stockton Ports, the Single A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.
· The Zags also stayed alive in the quest for a WCC regular season title. BYU remains the conference leader at 20-5, two games ahead of 18-7 Gonzaga and 2.5 over 17-7 Loyola Marymount. If the Zags win the next two games of the series, they will join the Cougars as co-champions and take the No. 1 overall seed at the WCC Championships. BYU needs one win during the final two contests to take the title outright; the Cougars have already clinched a share of it.
· Morgan’s 10 strikeouts lifted him to 128 on the season, the second-most by a Bulldog pitcher during a single year. The junior entered the game in sixth and leaped past Mike Davey, Clayton Mortenson, Brandon Bailey, and Billy Walker as the night progressed. He’s also tied for eighth after fanning 107 batters last year, joining Davey as the only Bulldog on the season top 10 list twice.
· All nine starters drove in at least one run on the night, with Vieth bringing home two on three hits. The three-hit night tied a career record at Gonzaga that he set Feb. 25 and equaled March 18. The first baseman also scored one run himself and made a nice running grab in foul territory to retire Keaton Kringlen and end the seventh inning.
· With his third-inning single, Roberts extended his on-base streak to 17 games, a career high and the longest by a Bulldog entirely in the 2017 season. During that stretch, he’s hit .424 with 25 hits – eight for extra bases – 19 runs, 20 RBIs, and eight walks.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Machtolf
· “It’s a good feeling to get there [the WCC Championships]. Obviously we have a lot of work still to do this weekend, but we feel good about getting to book the flight down there.”
· “Morgan did a great job. He made big pitches when he had to, and when there was trouble, there were three or four at-bats where he made pitches. Sometimes that’s a tough game to pitch in. You have to challenge them in certain times, and they’re going to get hits as you don’t want to walk them back into the game. I thought he did outstanding.”
Gonzaga junior right-hander Eli Morgan
· “They [BYU] definitely swing the bat well, but you have to be confident up there [on the mound]. Hitting is tough – even the best hitters are only hitting .370. You have to be confident up there, and I feel like I did a good job of that. I didn’t have my best command early, but I was confident that if I started throwing strikes, I’d be successful.”
The final WCC series continues Friday, May 19, as the Zags (29-17, 18-7 WCC) and Cougars (33-16, 20-5 WCC) resume play at Patterson Baseball Complex & Washington Trust Park. Game two of the three-game set will begin at 6:05 p.m. RHP Justin Vernia will start for Gonzaga while BYU will turn to RHP Brady Corless.