Evan O’Kelly, MSUB Athletics
BILLINGS – Set to complete an eight-game road stretch this weekend, the Montana State University Billings baseball team travels to Nampa, Idaho to face Northwest Nazarene University in a four-game Great Northwest Athletic Conference series at Vail Baseball Field.
The Yellowjackets (11-18, 9-10 GNAC) enter the week in fourth place in the GNAC standings, while the Crusaders (14-16, 12-8 GNAC) are in second place. Action will kick off on Friday evening, with a doubleheader under the lights scheduled to start at 3 p.m. The series will conclude on Saturday with a 1 p.m. doubleheader, and live video and live statistics will be available for all four games through MSUB’s Stretch Internet portal here.
This will be the second meeting between the reigning GNAC regular-season co-champions in the last three weeks, as MSUB and NNU split a four-game series at Dehler Park on March 24-25. The Yellowjackets are coming off a 3-1 series loss at Central Washington University last week, and have dropped five of their last six games overall.
“We saw some good things out of our guys last weekend, and hopefully we can continue to improve as a club going into this weekend,” said MSUB head coach Aaron Sutton. “NNU is a very good team, and they have one of the most productive offenses in our conference. We had some really tight games with them at our place, and now we will be tested on the road playing at their place. I think we have a good game plan going into it.”
CUTTING IT CLOSE: Among the Yellowjackets’ 29 games this season, 10 have been decided by two runs or less and the team has played in six one-run games. MSUB holds a 4-6 record in games decided by two runs or fewer, and is 3-3 in contests decided by a single run. Two of the narrow losses came last week against CWU, as MSUB was inches away from coming out on the winning end of a pair of games. The ‘Jackets led 7-6 with two outs in Game 2, and then rallied to score five runs in the top of the seventh to tie Game 4 at 5-5. The Wildcats held on both times however, using a walk-off home run in each game to spoil the Yellowjackets’ hopes of a series win.
MYERS MAINTAINS POWER NUMBERS: Junior Ryan Myers has gotten off to a strong start in his first year with the ‘Jackets, leading the team and ranking second in the GNAC in home runs with six this year. He has also driven in 19 runs, and had a hit and an RBI in each of the team’s four games last week. “In the fall I went to a different approach, and I’ve been working on having a solid foundation at the plate,” Myers said. “That has allowed me to calm down and use my natural power without trying to overdo it. I am seeing the ball well and seeing it deep, and that has been the key to the success.”
WATSON COMES UP BIG AT PLATE, ON MOUND: Senior Tanner Watson was a dual threat last week, batting 4-for-10 with a home run and also starting Game 2 of the series on the mound. The lefty limited CWU to two earned runs and five hits over 4 2/3 innings, in his longest outing of the year. In Game 3 of the series, Watson tied a school record by scoring four runs, as he went 3-for-4 at the plate. On the season, Watson carries a .300 batting average in 40 at-bats, and a solid 1.35 earned run average in 13 1/3 innings pitched.
BAKER PITCHES INTO EIGHTH: Making his first start of the year in a nine-inning game, senior Bryon Baker carried the ‘Jackets into the eighth inning of their 14-5 victory. Baker recorded four strikeouts against two walks, and gave up just two runs on five hits in 7 1/3 innings pitched. He is holding opposing hitters to an average of just .192 this year, a number that leads the GNAC and is the only sub-.200 mark.
The Butte native’s career ERA of 4.00 is currently second-best in MSUB history, and he needs four more strikeouts to move into the career top-10 as he currently has 73.
MSUB Career ERA Leaders (Minimum 90 IP)
LINEBARGER UPS PRODUCTION: Going 6-for-11 in Ellensburg, junior third baseman Conner Linebarger raised his batting average 43 points as he shot from .250 up to .293. A big 3-for-5 game with three runs scored helped the ‘Jackets win Game 3, and he recorded two doubles and his third home run of the year in the series.
GARCIA LAUNCHES FIRST-CAREER HR: Sophomore Jalen Garcia hit his first home run as a Yellowjacket last week, and put together a 5-for-15 series at the plate towards the top of the lineup. Garcia matched a season-best with three hits in Game 3, and he also made nine catches in right field to give him 30 on the year with zero errors defensively.
SLUGFEST IN THE MAKING: The league’s top-two run producing offenses will meet again this week in the most hitter friendly ballpark in the GNAC. If the performances two weeks ago at Dehler Park are any indication of how things will unfold this weekend, the series could be packed with four high-scoring games. MSUB averaged 10.75 hits and 8.0 runs per game in the four games against NNU, while hitting four home runs and totaling 15 extra base hits. The Crusaders were similarly impressive at the plate, averaging 11.6 hits per game and 8.75 runs, and totaling 10 long balls.
TURNING THE HALFWAY CORNER: Exactly halfway through the 40-game conference schedule, MSUB remains well in contention for one of the four berths into the 2017 GNAC Baseball Championships hosted by Concordia University in Portland, Ore., May 11-12. MSUB owns a favorable schedule in the back half of the season, as three of its final four series are at home after this week’s set in Idaho. MSUB has series wins over Saint Martin’s and Concordia, a split with NNU, and series losses to Central Washington and Western Oregon.
Northwest Nazarene University Crusaders
Friday, April 7 – 3 PM Doubleheader – 9-Inning/7-Inning
Saturday, April 8 – 1 PM Doubleheader – 9-Inning/7-Inning
2017 Record: 14-16, 12-8 GNAC (2nd)
Head Coach: Rocke Musgraves, 4th season
2016 Record: 30-21, 23-15 GNAC (T1st, GNAC Tournament Champions)
The Crusaders are coming off a split in a four-game home series against GNAC-leading Western Oregon University last weekend. NNU owns series wins over Central Washington and Saint Martin’s, and has split with Concordia and MSUB to play its way into second place at the midway point in the conference schedule.
Billy King, a transfer from NCAA Division I Oregon State University, leads the GNAC with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs, and is batting .309 in his first year with the Crusaders. King will look to replicate his performance against MSUB two weeks ago, when he hit three home runs including a game-winner in the top of the ninth inning in the series finale.
Seven other Crusaders have multiple home runs this season, as the team ranks No. 23 in the NCAA with 37 total on the year.
Colton McCluskey and Spencer Pollock have been the top table setters for NNU, batting .364 and .353, respectively, and getting on base at .443 and .465, respectively. Brett Nielsen is also a top hitter with an average of .333, and has racked up four home runs and 25 RBIs. Casey Sheehan is batting .330, and 13 of his 34 hits have gone for extra bases.
On the mound, Ross Clevenger has been the team’s top starter with 39 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.89 in 46 innings pitched. Lefty Jaramy Jacobs has also made seven starts, holding a 5.59 ERA in 38 2/3 innings pitched with 36 strikeouts.
Out of the bullpen, Brady Baker has been solid with an ERA of 3.55 and 23 strikeouts against 11 walks in 25 1/3 innings.
NNU is batting .281 and averages 6.43 runs per game offensively, and holds a 6.33 staff ERA in 246 innings pitched.
The Series: With the split in Billings, the all-time series remains dead even with each team having won 42 times. NNU holds a narrow 19-18 advantage in games played in Nampa.
Last Time Out: Casey Merritt walked off a hero with a two-run, two-out triple in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 2, as MSUB pulled off an improbable 12-11 win after trailing 8-1. The victory gave MSUB the doubleheader sweep on Day 1 of the series, but the Crusaders responded with six homers on Day 2 and returned the favor with a pair of victories to even things.