(Editor’s note: MSUB Athletics release)
PORTLAND, Ore. – Jarrod Molnaa threw 132 pitches over 8 2/3 stellar innings, and out-dueled an equally-impressive effort by Tanner Inouye on Wednesday night at Porter Park, lifting Montana State University Billings to a 4-2 win over Saint Martin’s University at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships.
Molnaa was one off his career high with 11 strikeouts, and earned his GNAC-leading eighth win of the year. “When you realize early on that it’s going to be a pitcher’s duel, you just gotta lock in,” Molnaa said after the game. “You just try to last as long as you can until your boys come through, and they did late.”
The Saints (19-31) couldn’t make use of Inouye’s second complete game of the 2019 season, as the right-hander struck out 10 and walked just one over eight stellar frames. SMU will play Northwest Nazarene University (24-23) in an elimination game on Thursday at noon.
Conner Linebarger delivered the decisive blow in the quiet offensive affair, crushing a go-ahead three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning that pushed MSUB ahead for good. “It felt great, and this was kind of a pitcher’s duel so we were just grinding out at-bats,” said Linebarger. “I got up in a good situation, and I just wanted to put a good swing on the ball.”
Linebarger’s game-changing blast came after a two-run home run by Ryne Oshiro in the top of the seventh, which broke the scoreless tie and temporarily put the Saints ahead. Molnaa retired six in-a-row after the home run however, and turned the ball over to left-hander Sam Muskat who completed his fourth save of the year with a four-pitch strikeout of Oshiro.
The Yellowjackets (31-18) advance to the winner’s side of the bracket, and will play No. 2 seed Western Oregon University (30-11) on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Pacific/4:30 p.m. Mountain. It will be the ninth meeting of the year between the Yellowjackets and Wolves, with WOU winning 5 of 8 regular-season contests. “You can’t ask for more, and both arms threw the heck out of the ball,” said MSUB head coach Aaron Sutton. “Inouye had his stuff and he was tough on us, and it is just a testament to our guys grinding out at-bats. Anytime Jarrod has the ball on the mound we like our chances, and he pitches with some emotion which our guys feed off of. He kept us in it for the full nine, and Muskat came in to get that big out.”
Molnaa got out of a jam in the top of the third inning, dialing up a ground ball that Ryan Roche and Linebarger turned into a double play to strand a runner in scoring position. “We talk about it all year, just to keep making pitches and not let outside factors get in your head,” Molnaa commented when asked about pitching out of high-pressure situations. “Being a senior I know every game I get in to could potentially be my last, so I just want to pitch as best I can and leave it all out on the field.”
Inouye responded with a clean bottom of the third and fourth innings, extending his string of consecutive batters to begin the game to 12. He took a no-hitter into the top of the sixth inning, before Andrew Schleusner ripped a leadoff single into left field to start the frame.
Molnaa showed grit to get out of another jam in the top of the fourth, after a single off the wall in right and a walk put two on with no outs. The senior buckled down and struck out the next two hitters, before a lazy fly ball to Garcia in center ended the frame.
Inouye was remarkably efficient early on, needing just 51 pitches to get through five no-hit innings. Schleusner made his way around to third in the sixth, but Inouye ended the frame with a strikeout and a ground out to keep the game scoreless.
After a one-out single by Bryant Nakagawa in the top of the seventh, Oshiro turned around on a 2-1 pitch and kept his long drive down the right-field line fair to spot the Saints a 2-0 edge.
Jalen Garcia got the seventh-inning rally started with a leadoff infield single to third base, and Chris Arpan followed with a one-out walk. After Matt Dillon’s base hit to left was misplayed to allow the first run to score, Linebarger dug into the box with two on and one out. The senior jumped on Inouye’s first delivery, smashing a towering blast into the bleachers in straightaway right field. It was his 11th career home run, and the second of an injury-ridden season. “I was sitting changeup and I was looking for something up in the zone,” Linebarger commented on his approach at the plate. “Jarrod competed for us all day. We were grinding out at-bats, and luckily I got up with a couple guys on.”
Molnaa nearly completed the game, garnering a popup to left field with two outs in the ninth. The ball dropped in after being lost in the lights however, pushing the tying run into scoring position and prompting Sutton to bring in Muskat to face the left-handed hitting Oshiro. Pitching in his hometown, the Beaverton, Oregon, native emphatically clinched the tournament-opening win as Landon Peterson held on to a third-strike foul tip.
The Saints fell victim to missed chances throughout the day, leaving eight runners on base and scoring just twice despite nine hits.
THE BUZZ: Molnaa was named the St. Vincent Healthcare Player of the Game…MSUB is now 48-47 all-time against Saint Martin’s, and is 4-1 in neutral-site contests…Molnaa’s career high of 12 strikeouts came on April 19 against Northwest Nazarene…his previous high for pitches in a game was 121, on April 19.
NEXT UP: The Yellowjackets and Wolves will meet in a rematch of last year’s title game, which the Wolves won in Ellensburg, Washington, to claim their third straight conference tournament title. The winner of Thursday’s afternoon game will advance to the championship game on Friday at noon.