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MSU Billings enters final regular season road swing

Posted at 5:18 PM, Mar 28, 2018

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – The end of the two-month road stretch is in sight for the Montana State University Billings baseball team, which has its final Great Northwest Athletic Conference series away from Dehler Park this weekend at Central Washington University.

Before five straight weeks in the Magic City to close the regular season, MSUB will square off against the Wildcats in a Friday-Saturday series at the CWU Baseball Field in Ellensburg, Wash. Doubleheaders are scheduled for noon Pacific time on Friday and 11 a.m. Pacific on Saturday. Live statistics will be available for all four games, and live video will be available for all games except the third game of the series, online through MSUB’s Stretch Internet portal here.

“We have done a good job of making road games feel like home games, and getting comfortable playing in a different environment,” said MSUB head coach Aaron Sutton, whose team has a solid 14-9 record in true road games and a 2-1 mark in neutral-site games this season. “The guys have responded really well to the challenge, and we have one more series to finish up this weekend before being home for a long time.”

The Yellowjackets are just a half-game back of first place in the conference standings, as they are 16-10 overall and 11-5 in league play. Western Oregon University leads the pack at 12-4 in GNAC play, and the Wildcats enter the weekend with an identical record to MSUB at 16-10 overall and 11-5 in league play.

“Central is a very talented club, and offensively they are up there with the best teams in our region,” Sutton commented. “We need to come out and execute our game plan, and we need to score some runs early. It will be crucial for our offense to continue to put up runs, and we know their ballpark can be a very offensive one as well.”

MSUB is coming off its second straight GNAC series victory, as it topped Northwest Nazarene 3-1 in a four-game set last weekend in Nampa, Idaho. The ‘Jackets averaged 9.0 runs per game in the series, the second straight weekend that they’ve approached double figures per game offensively.

REGIONAL RANKS: Despite MSUB’s series win and stellar performance on the road this year, the team slipped one spot to No. 8 in the latest NCBWA west-region rankings released on Monday.

CONNER KEEPS IT ROLLING: Junior Conner Linebarger started off the NNU series with a 4-for-4 performance, and had a good weekend overall with a double, a home run, four RBIs, and five runs scored. Linebarger is third on the team this season with a batting average of .330, and his 19 RBIs are fourth-most on the squad. Defensively, a move to the right side of the infield has benefitted him greatly as he is fielding at a clip of .965 this year which is more than 70 points higher than last season at third base.

HALL COMES THROUGH: It took another clutch hit from senior Kade Hall to seal the series win over the Nighthawks, as he delivered the game-tying double in the bottom of the seventh in Game 4. Hall is second on the team with a .349 batting average, and has four home runs with 20 RBIs as well. Hall leads the team with 26 runs, and is a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts while being the only Yellowjacket to start all 26 games.

GARCIA GRINDS IT OUT: Despite a tough overall weekend at the plate, Jalen Garcia got the job done in his most important plate appearance of the series. After Hall’s game-tying double, Garcia followed with a two-base hit to give the ‘Jackets the edge in the 7-5 series-clinching win. Despite going 1-for-17 last weekend, Garcia continues to lead MSUB with a .354 batting average, and his 27 RBIs are most on the squad. The Billings native is vying for history this week, as he enters at 15-for-17 in stolen bases and is just two steals away from tying the MSUB single-season record.

MSUB Baseball Single-Season Steals Records
Rank Player Steals Season

1. Kyle Pryor 17 2007
Zach Robinson 17 2017
3. Kyle Pryor 16 2006
4. Casey Merritt 15 2017
Willie Crtalic 15 2006
Jalen Garcia 15 2018
Colby Robison 15 2012
8. Nick Hoskyn 14 2007
9. Cole Pryor 13 2008
10. Colby Robison 12 2011

SETIAN DOES THE LITTLE THINGS: Freshman shortstop Wyatt Setian was a key player last week for the ‘Jackets as well, as he started off the series with his second home run of the year and drove in four runs overall. In the finale, Setian went 2-for-3, and fought off a tough pitch for a bloop-single that set up Hall’s game-tying double.

SCHLEUSNER MAINTAINS BATTING AVERAGE: Andrew Schleusner hit his second home run of the year, and became the third Yellowjacket to reach 20 RBIs with a productive weekend against NNU. In making 24 starts as the team’s catcher and designated hitter, Schlesuner is second on the team with an on-base percentage of .458.

JOHNSON HOMERS AGAIN: Further solidifying his spot in the middle of the order, junior Kaleo Johnson homered for the second straight weekend, and came a few feet away from a go-ahead grand slam in the game that the ‘Jackets dropped at NNU. In 54 at-bats through 19 games, Johnson carries a .333 batting average and is slugging at .519 with 15 RBIs. The third baseman has kept his walk-strikeout ratio even at 9-9, and reaches base at a clip of .449.

FREDRICKSON ATOP GNAC: Junior starter Steen Fredrickson remained among the top pitchers in the GNAC last week, as he improved to 5-0 on the season with another victory. He leads the league with 44 strikeouts and is fifth with 36.0 innings pitched, and his opponents’ batting average of .211 is the top mark in the conference as well. Fredrickson has overpowered the opposition for the most part, striking out six or more in four of his last five starts while pitching five or more innings during that time span as well. In seven starts this season, Fredrickson has been MSUB’s ace with an earned run average of 2.75.

MORE OF THE SAME FROM COX: Though Adam Cox finally surrendered his first hit and run of the 2018 season, the right-handed reliever was electric again in earning a pair of saves in the series. Cox racked up six strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings over the weekend, and maintained his remarkable status of striking out more than half the hitters he has faced this season (23 of 43). Cox’s five saves are most in the conference and 13th-most in the NCAA, and he has a 0.66 ERA in 13 2/3 innings over seven appearances.

Central Washington University Wildcats
Friday, March 30 – 12 PM Pacific (Doubleheader) – Ellensburg, WA
Saturday, March 31 – 11 AM Pacific (Doubleheader) – Ellensburg, WA
2018 Record: 16-10, 11-5 GNAC
Head Coach: Desi Storey, 27th season
2017 Record: 30-23, 23-17 GNAC (2nd place)

The Wildcats have shown consistent solidity under the guidance of long-tenured head coach Desi Storey, and are back at the top of the GNAC standings in 2018 after a runner-up finish a season ago. CWU responded to an 8-5 loss to Saint Martin’s in the opener last week, and rattled off three straight wins to claim the series and pull even with the ‘Jackets in a tie for second place.

CWU has extra incentive to remain in the top-four and claim a spot in the conference tournament, as it will host the event from May 9-11.

The Yellowjackets will have to be weary of James Smith III, who enters this weekend with a .411 batting average to lead the conference. Smith is tied for the team lead with four home runs, and his 29 RBIs are the most in the conference as well.

Beyond the talented senior, CWU has plenty of offensive depth with four other regulars batting north of .300 and a team average of .311 to lead the conference. Dustin Braun is hitting .382 with four home runs and 21 RBIs, with a breakout performance in his second year after playing just 14 games a season ago. Justin Hampson is close behind with an average of .377, and Ty Deckwa (.327) and Mitch Lesmeister (.316) are CWU’s other major offensive threats.

Reigning GNAC Pitcher of the Year Mackenzie Gaul holds a 3.66 ERA in seven starts, and has 21 strikeouts in 32.0 innings pitched. Connor Stevenson has been the top starter for the ‘Cats, with a team-high 30 strikeouts, GNAC-leading 44 2/3 innings pitched, and a solid 2.62 ERA.

Griffin Davis is CWU’s other pitcher to have made seven starts this year, and he has 27 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings with a 6.94 ERA. Seth Pedersen is another key arm, with a pair of starts and eight overall appearances while ranking second on the team with 29 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings pitched. CWU has a team ERA of 5.45 and has not recorded a save in its 26 games this year.

The Series: MSUB is 42-45 all-time against CWU, and has a record of 20-24 in games played in Ellensburg. The teams split last year’s eight-game set 4-4 with each team winning its home series 3-1.

Last Time Out: The ‘Jackets won 3 of 4 games in Billings on May 5-6 last spring, helping solidify their spot in the conference tournament. MSUB held on for narrow wins on the final day of the series, claiming 6-5 and 5-4 results to salvage a season split of the series.