(MSUB Athletics release)
PORTLAND, Ore. – Falling victim to a walk-off loss for the fourth time this season, the Montana State University Billings baseball team watched as another victory was swiped away at the CWU Baseball Field on Friday.
The immediate reaction was dejection, as the Yellowjackets dropped a series-opening game that they had once led 7-0 and led 13-12 entering the bottom of the ninth inning.
MSUB entered the week a game behind Western Oregon University in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings, with high incentive to keep pace before the conference leading Wolves come to Billings for a four-game series this weekend.
With that in mind, the Yellowjackets shook off the loss in their 27th road game of the season, and won the next three to capture the series win and pull into a tie with WOU for first place in the GNAC standings. On Monday, MSUB was picked as the GNAC Team of the Week.
Despite playing 30 consecutive games on the road to open the 2018 campaign, the Yellowjackets have found a way to go 19-11 and move to the top of the conference standings at 14-6 in league play. The team has won three road GNAC series in-a-row. “As tough as it seems, at the end of the day it has benefitted our group in helping us stay focused on the task at hand,” said MSUB head coach Aaron Sutton. “It is great to be recognized by the conference, and it is a testament to our guys’ focus and effort. They bring a great attitude to practice every day, and make the best of everything handed our way.”
The Yellowjackets achieved last weekend’s series victory in record-breaking fashion, as they tied the GNAC record for home runs in a four-game series with 13.
Kade Hall, who was named the GNAC Player of the Week earlier on Monday, went 4-for-6 with four RBIs in the wild 14-13 loss in the opener, which featured 27 runs, 31 hits, 24 strikeouts, and 22 runners left on base combined between the teams. Perhaps the biggest hit of the weekend for Hall came with MSUB trailing 5-4 in the top of the seventh inning in Game 2, as he led off the frame with a homer to spark a game-winning five-run rally.
While Hall garnered the weekly award, an MSUB lineup that yielded 49 total runs was packed with production from top-to-bottom. Ryan Myers homered three times and drove in six runs, pushing his GNAC-leading long ball total to nine on the season. Kaleo Johnson ascended to the top batting average on the team at .394, after a 10-for-17 weekend with two home runs, three doubles, and nine RBIs. Jalen Garcia also homered twice, while scoring nine times and tying the MSUB single-season record for stolen bases with his 17th of the year. Hayden Humphrey added his second home run of the season, and Colton Cosner hit his first as a Yellowjacket.
Perhaps the most consistent player offensively was Conner Linebarger however, as he had at least one RBI in each game and totaled nine on the weekend. He delivered a two-out two-run triple to give MSUB a 13-12 lead in the ninth inning of the series-opening defeat, before backing up Hall’s game-tying home run in Game 2 with a game-winning two-run single in the seventh inning. Linebarger added a two-run double in the 18-1 blowout, and capped off the weekend by helping MSUB strike immediately with a first-inning RBI-single in Game 4.
While it was the offense that carried MSUB all weekend, the Yellowjacket pitching staff limited CWU to just five runs on nine hits on Day 2 of the series. Michael Gahan was stellar in his first-career start, with a career-best six strikeouts in eight innings with just one run allowed on four hits.
Tristan Shockley earned a win and a save on the weekend, with five shutout innings of relief during which he struck out six, walked none, and gave up just two hits.
Home field advantage means more in baseball than perhaps any other sport, as the home team carries a tangible competitive advantage in being last to hit. Just as they felt it last weekend, the walk-off loss has become an all-too familiar occurrence for the ‘Jackets this season. MSUB fell to No. 15 Dixie State University 12-11 in the bottom of the ninth in the first game of the year, before back-to-back walk-off losses in the ensuing series at the College of Idaho.
“Our guys have handled so much adversity this year, they just roll with it,” said Sutton. “Losing Game 1 (again) was tough, but it was nothing foreign to our guys. Offensively we have been tremendous this year, but our pitching staff came through and pitched well on the second day against Central. Overall we have been trying to put things together offensively, defensively, and on the mound, and this was one of our better weekends going out doing it all.”
MSUB is scheduled for five consecutive home series to end the 2018 GNAC regular season, and has forced its way into becoming a frontrunner for its third GNAC regular-season title in the last four seasons. If MSUB can maintain its spot in the top-four in the conference, it will earn a berth into the GNAC Championships running May 9-11 in Ellensburg, Wash.
Though the team will finally have the chance to play as the home side for the first time this year, a fresh blanket of snow in Billings has likely pushed this weekend’s series against Western Oregon to a neutral site several hours from Billings.
If the adversity faced in the first two months of the season is any indicator, one more schedule adjustment won’t dampen the Yellowjackets’ spirits one bit.