STOCKTON, Calif.—A host of scouts came out to Friday’s WCC Championships game between top-seeded Gonzaga and second-seed Loyola Marymount to see LMU starter Cory Abbott Friday afternoon, but it was Gonzaga starter Justin Vernia who stole the show as he powered the Zags to a 3-1 win and a berth in the tournament title game.
Vernia dazzled Friday, tossing 6.2 scoreless innings and allowing just three hits. The senior struck out five batters and walked just one – that coming in the first inning – while allowing only three hits. The first hit came in the third inning – a blooper into shallow left from Nick Sogard – but he got out of the frame with strong backing by his defense. Second baseman Justin Jacobs collected a slow grounder off the bat of Phil Caulfield and glove-flipped it to shortstop Gunnar Schubert, covering the bag at second. Schubert then completed the 4-6-3 double play with a strike to Jake Vieth at first to end the frame.
Abbott matched Vernia by going scoreless through three innings, but the Bulldogs changed that in the top of the fourth. The first two Zag hitters – Troy Johnston and Tyler Frost – drew walks, and then Justin Jacobs was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Third baseman Jeff Bohling then lifted a fly ball to right, allowing Johnston to score on the sacrifice. Abbott ended the frame with a fielder’s choice and a strikeout, however, escaping further damage.
In the bottom of the fourth, Vernia found a grove. The double play to end the third kicked off a stretch of 12 consecutive batters retired that lasted until two down in the seventh inning. At that point, LMU designated hitter Steven Chavez knuckled a single into right field. Brandon Shearer followed up with a knock to left, and that was it for Vernia, who exited the game in place of Wyatt Mills. The Zag closer then induced an inning-ending ground ball to end the threat.
The Zags picked up a huge pair of runs in the top of the eighth, chasing Abbott from the game in the process. Johnston led off with a single to right center, and then Frost followed up with the dagger, ripping a triple down the right field line and allowing the freshman to score. The Lions then turned to reliever Braydon Salzman, but Jacobs greeted the freshman with a fly ball to left field, allowing Frost to score and push Gonzaga’s lead to 3-0.
Loyola Marymount jumped on the board in the eighth as Billy Wilson led off with a solo home run to right, but Mills clamped down again. The Spokane native struck out the final two batters in the eighth and sat down the side in the ninth to confirm the win and a spot in the WCC Championship game.
Vernia picked up the win, advancing to 7-3 on the year. Mills earned his 12th save of the year while tossing 2.1 innings, allowing just one run on one hit and striking out two.
· Vernia pitched another outstanding outing against the Lions, two weeks after allowing just one run in seven innings of work in his regular-season outing against them May 13. In the two starts, the senior from Issaquah, Wash., has posted a 0.66 ERA, allowing one run in 13.2 innings while striking out 10 Lion batters and allowing just 10 hits.
· With the save, Mills tied the school’s single-season saves record, matching Cody Martin’s 12 saves during the 2011 campaign. Four of those have come in the last nine games, and he’s now earned a save in three games versus Loyola Marymount this year.
· Both Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga are ranked in the Collegiate Baseball poll this week, marking the first game the Bulldogs have played this year where both teams have been ranked. LMU is ranked No. 27 in the poll, and Gonzaga jumped in at No. 22. Gonzaga is now 10-5 against ranked foes this season.
· Abbott, the conference Pitcher of the Year, entered the game having allowed just two earned runs to WCC teams during the regular season. He allowed all three Friday afternoon. It was his first loss to a conference foe as well. In Spokane on May 13, Abbott shut out the Zags, holding GU to five hits.
· GU pitchers struck out seven Lions Friday, putting the staff at 428 for the season. That’s the second-most in program history, only behind last year’s 501. Three different Bulldog pitchers have fanned at least 50 batters – topped by Eli Morgan’s 138 strikeouts – while seven have punched out at least 30.
Associate head coach Danny Evans
· “Going in, we told them that we’re going to have to do what Saint Mary’s tried to do to Eli and eat pitches. [Abbott] did get his strikeouts, but we did a good job to eat pitches and getting him to tire out a little bit so we could land some punches. We did a good job of staying with him.”
· “Special is exactly how you describe Vernia today. When you go down a stretch in postseason, you’re going to lean on your seniors. Vernia was…that was probably one of the best performances I’ve seen in my 15 years here. As an ex-Zag and a coach, I couldn’t be more proud of the effort Vernia gave us tonight. Then Mills was Mills, and we were able to secure that win.”
Senior right-hander Justin Vernia
· “Everything was working. Today’s probably the best I’ve thrown my curveball all year. Then mixed that with my change-up, and that was on as well. That’s pretty hard to hit when that goes on.”
· “I knew I had to be sharp [facing Abbott]. I don’t really change my game plan too much, I just go and do what I can do and hopefully put up zeroes. I had a lot of confidence in our offense today because even though he’s really good, being the second time we had seen him, I knew it would get to him. Even if it was just one, it was huge. One was enough for me, especially today.”
The top-seeded Zags (33-18) will now have two opportunities at claiming the WCC Championship and the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The title game against the No. 3 seed BYU will begin at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 27, and the if-necessary game will begin at 7:00 p.m., once again at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton, Calif.