Evan O’Kelly, MSUB Athletics
BILLINGS – Kicking off an eight-game home stand this weekend, the Montana State University Billings baseball team will host Great Northwest Athletic Conference opponent Western Oregon University in a four-game series at Dehler Park.
Action is scheduled for Friday and Saturday afternoon with doubleheaders starting at 1 p.m. both days. Live video with play-by-play commentary and live statistics will be available for all four games, online through MSUB’s Stretch Internet portal.
The Yellowjackets (13-20, 11-12 GNAC) are coming off a series split at Northwest Nazarene University, and the team remains in fourth place among the crowded GNAC standings. “Coming back home and getting league play going here is an exciting time for us,” said MSUB head coach Aaron Sutton. “We are a completely different team than we were at the beginning of the league season. I think our guys going out and proving what kind of club we are is what has them excited for this weekend.”
The series against Western Oregon will get off to a unique start, with the resumption of a game that was halted due to darkness during the series between the teams in March. WOU leads the seven-inning game 7-0 in the middle of the sixth inning, and the game will be completed immediately before the regularly scheduled four-game series begins.
COOPER BACK TO 2016 FORM: Logging his best outing of the year last week, senior right-hander Cody Cooper struck out a dozen hitters in a nine-inning complete game with a career-high 149 pitches. It was Cooper’s seventh-career 10-strikeout game, and he was one shy of his career high of 13 in a game. The stellar outing earned him GNAC Pitcher of the Week honors for the third time in his career, and he also became just the sixth pitcher in GNAC history to reach 200 career strikeouts. “It was a relief to go out there and find my groove,” Cooper commented on his strong start. “I had great defense behind me the whole game, and I can’t say enough about Andrew Schleusner behind the plate. He’s a young freshman back there, but he has been playing for us like a veteran.”
GARCIA CONTINUES HOT START: Sophomore rightfielder Jalen Garcia has continued his stellar start to the season, racking up eight hits in the four games at NNU including a pair of doubles and five RBIs. The big weekend boosted Garcia’s batting average to .360, and he has also stolen six bases and played error-free defense in 38 chances in the outfield.
LINEBARGER A TOUGH OUT: Junior third baseman Conner Linebarger was similarly impressive at the plate in the NNU series, going 7-for-14 including a four-hit performance in Game 3. Linebarger has elevated his season batting average to .326, and his nine doubles are the most on the team. Defensively, he’s made just two errors in his last 32 chances at the hot corner, and ranks third on the team with 47 assists.
MYERS’ BAT FEARED: Before hitting his team-leading seventh home run last week, junior first baseman Ryan Myers was avoided at the plate as he drew six walks against the Crusaders. The long ball came in the series finale, a game in which Myers had three RBIs to bring his season total to a team-leading 25. Defensively at first base, Myers has committed just two errors this season and hasn’t had a miscue in his last 140 chances in 17 games.
MERRITT, ROBINSON GET ON: In three of the four games against NNU last week, leadoff man Zach Robinson and second-place hitter Casey Merritt got on base consecutively to start the game. It is a theme that has held true for the majority of the season, as Robinson carries an on-base percentage of .446 and Merritt is at .383. In the 11 innings that either Merritt or Robinson led off last week, the leadoff man reached base eight times. The duo reached base consecutively on five different occasions, fueling an offense that averaged 9.0 runs per game in the series.
GOLDEN MAINTAINS POWER NUMBERS: Freshman shortstop Caje Golden hit his sixth home run of the year last week, and drove in four runs to move his season total to 17. He ranks second on the squad in long balls behind Myers, and is tied for third in RBIs. He has earned 26 starts at short, and his 18 runs scored are fourth-most on the team.
BAKER PROVIDES ANOTHER STRONG START: Since assuming his role as a starter a month ago, senior Bryon Baker has turned in four quality starts and struck out 24 hitters over his last five appearances. The right-hander has pitched into the seventh inning in each of those starts, and leads the team with a 2.83 ERA in 41 1/3 innings. Baker is holding the opposition to a .190 batting average, a mark that ranks third best in the GNAC.
MUSKAT LOGS ANOTHER EXTENDED OUTING: Freshman left-hander Sam Muskat turned in his third appearance of at least three innings last week, and pitched in both games on Day 1 against NNU. Muskat helped the ‘Jackets to a victory in Game 2 of the series, scattering two runs on three hits with a season-best four strikeouts in three solid relief innings.
AS A UNIT: MSUB continues to rank among the conference leaders in offense, as the Yellowjackets are second in total runs scored with 201 (6.1 per game), tied for second in on-base percentage (.371), and second in RBIs with 180. As a pitching staff, MSUB ranks fourth in ERA at 6.23 and opposing batting average at .291, and is third in strikeouts with 190.
Western Oregon University Wolves
Friday, April 14 – 1 PM – 9-Inning/7-Inning Doubleheader
Saturday, April 15 – 1 PM – 9-Inning/7-Inning Doubleheader
2017 Record: 15-8, 14-5 GNAC (1st place)
Head Coach: Kellen Walker, 5th season
2016 Record: 31-23, 24-16 GNAC (3rd place)
The GNAC-leading Wolves have won five games in-a-row, and are coming off a doubleheader sweep of Saint Martin’s University on Monday.
The Wolves lead the league in both batting average at .282 and ERA at 3.57, despite the lowest power numbers in the league with just five total home runs and 43 extra-base hits. WOU has a disciplined approach at the plate with a league-low 110 strikeouts, and the team also leads the league in conjunction with MSUB with 29 sacrifice bunts.
Brock Pradere and Justin Wakem are the team’s top hitters, batting .356 and .345, respectively. Pradere leads the GNAC in stolen bases with 13, and ranks fifth with an on-base percentage of .447. Jay Leverett has hit three of the team’s five home runs, and his 13 RBIs are tied for second most. Jacob Martinez leads the team in RBIs with 20, thanks to six doubles on the year.
Reigning GNAC Pitcher of the Year Brady Miller has thrown a team-high 36 1/3 innings, striking out 34 and walking 16 in seven starts. Kade Mechals is one of the top relievers in the conference, striking out 25 hitters in 16 1/3 innings and holding a 1.65 ERA in 10 appearances out of the bullpen. Connor McCord is another top arm for WOU, with a 2.81 ERA in 25 2/3 innings while starting three games and appearing in seven overall.
The Series: MSUB is 19-61 all-time against WOU, and is 8-29 in home games against the Wolves. MSUB has won seven of the last 12 games between the teams.
Last Time Out: The ‘Jackets dropped a pair of close game in Oregon, falling 3-2 in Game 2 and 8-7 in Game 3. The Wolves are in strong position to complete the four-game sweep, as the ‘Jackets have just three outs left to work with and trail 7-0 when the fourth game is completed on Friday.