(MSUB Athletics release)
ELLENSBURG, Wash. – Kaleo Johnson broke the Montana State University Billings baseball single-season home run record, Ryan Myers tied the career home run mark, and the Yellowjackets slugged eight long balls at the CWU Baseball Field Thursday in a split to advance to the 2018 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships title game.
MSUB lost the opener to No. 2 seed Western Oregon 14-8, tying the school record with five home runs in the process. The Yellowjackets then hit three more in the elimination game against No. 3 seed and host Central Washington University, and rode a solid pitching performance from right-hander Jared Winslow to keep their season alive with a 10-6 win.
Johnson had three home runs on the day to give him 16 on the year, while Myers and Jalen Garcia had a home run in each game. Johnson passed Brody Miller’s mark of 14 home runs (2015), and Myers matched the former All-American with 25 long balls now in his two-year career. Hayden Humphrey added his third homer of the season in Game 1 and drove in three runs.
Winslow threw a career-high 110 pitches in 6 2/3 innings of work in Game 2, and senior Talon Derrick earned his first save of the year by pitching 2 1/3 shutout innings of relief to finish off the win.
MSUB is now 32-17 on the year, and will face Western Oregon in the tournament title game on Friday at noon, Pacific time. If the Yellowjackets win, they will have to beat the Wolves a second time to claim their first-ever GNAC tournament title. WOU (26-20) is looking to defend last year’s GNAC Championships crown, and win its fourth title since the tournament began in 2013.
Central Washington’s season ended with an overall record of 27-26.
Game 1 – Western Oregon 14, MSU Billings 8
The Wolves plated runs in 6 of 8 innings in which they hit, building an early lead and adding on steadily throughout the game. WOU advances to Friday’s GNAC title game, and will play the winner of the game between MSUB and Central Washington.
WOU third baseman Nyles Nygaard immediately atoned for an error to open the game, when he made a diving pick of a sharp ground ball and started an inning-ending double play to give WOU momentum in the first.
The Wolves carried it to the plate with two runs in the bottom of the first inning, but MSUB catcher Andrew Schleusner helped limit the damage with a big back-pick at first base to end the frame with a runner on third.
Johnson promptly kicked off the top of the second with a deep home run to left-center, and Hayden Humphrey delivered an RBI-single to pull the score even at 1-1. The ‘Jackets plated two more runs in the third, thanks to a leadoff home run to right by Jalen Garcia and an RBI-single by Conner Linebarger.
Connor McCord had the first of his five RBIs in the game in the bottom of the third, and the ‘Jackets traded a double play for a run as WOU made it a 4-4 ballgame.
Schleusner again caught a WOU runner off guard, eliminating a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fourth with another back pick to Ryan Myers at first. It wound up being a key play, as McCord drilled a three-run home run in the frame to help give WOU an 8-4 edge.
The ‘Jackets got one run back in the fifth, when Johnson lofted a lazy fly ball into the wind and watched it carry over the right-field fence just inside the foul pole. Humphrey followed with a two-run shot to left in the next inning, but each time the ‘Jackets scored the Wolves responded.
WOU pieced together a pair of runs with two outs in the fifth, and three more with two outs in the sixth. Kade Hall put an end to WOU’s three-run sixth inning as he nailed Hunter Johnson going for second from left field. The Wolves had built a six-run advantage however, and the ‘Jackets couldn’t get back within striking distance.
Myers crushed his 13th home run of the year well over the fence in right in the top of the seventh, and started a huge double play to end the bottom of the frame to get MSUB out of a first-and-third jam.
It was the final hit for the ‘Jackets, as Nick Parr and Koty Fallon combined to throw a pair of shutout innings and end the game. WOU starter Craig Grubbe allowed seven runs on nine hits in six innings, while striking out six and walking just one.
Yellowjacket ace Steen Fredrickson suffered his first defeat of the year, allowing 10 runs on 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings pitched.
Game 2 – MSU Billings 10, Central Washington 4
Garcia homered in the first inning before Myers and Johnson went back-to-back in a six-run second to help the ‘Jackets establish a 7-1 lead early in the game.
The Wildcats pushed back with two runs in the bottom of the second, and GNAC Player of the Year James Smith hit his 12th home run of the year in the third to make it a 7-4 ballgame.
Winslow shifted into high gear after that however, cruising through the bottom of the fifth in style by striking out the side. He matched his career high by getting through the sixth, and came one out away from making it seven full innings before giving the ball off to Derrick. The sidearm thrower inherited a bases loaded jam with the score at 10-6 and two outs in the seventh, but got CWU leadoff man Tristin Parton to ground out to Conner Linebarger at second base to escape with no damage.
Winslow finished with six strikeouts on the day, one shy of his career high.
The Wildcats had two runners on in the eighth and Jesse Unger hit a double in the ninth, but Derrick stranded all three to shut the door and make the four-run advantage hold up.
Linebarger and Schleusner finished Game 2 with a line of 3-for-5, and the former drove in three runs including RBI-singles in the fourth and sixth innings.
Mackenzie Gaul started for the ‘Cats, and allowed seven runs on six hits in two innings although only one of MSUB’s runs in that span was earned. A costly dropped fly ball in the second prolonged the inning, as Myers’ three-run shot and Johnson’s solo blast both came with two outs.
JJ Asinas gave up three runs in 3 1/3 innings of relief, and Dom Baker was stellar with four strikeouts and only two hits allowed in 2 1/3 innings out of the bullpen.
Smith finished the game 3-for-5 with three RBIs, and was a single shy of hitting for the cycle.
THE BUZZ: Winslow was selected as the St. Vincent Healthcare Player of the Day…MSUB matched the school record for home runs in a game in the opener, after also hitting five in a game at Central Washington on March 31…Linebarger is 9-for-13 and has reached base in 11 of 15 plate appearances so far in the tournament…Johnson now has 16 home runs on the year, and is two away from the GNAC record of 18 held by Kyle Sani of Central Washington (2013)…MSUB has now hit 74 home runs this season…MSUB has been hit by a pitch 85 times this season, breaking the school record of 82 established last spring…MSUB also broke the team record for hits in a season passing the mark of 542 in 2015 with a total of 546 this spring.