Full-throttle win puts GCU in title round

26 Th11 2021 | 04:38

MESA, Ariz. — A pitcher’s three-hit, complete-game shutout or a lineup’s 15-hit outburst would have the feel of championship baseball.

On Friday night, both facets put Grand Canyon in the WAC Tournament’s championship round.

Lopes junior Pierson Ohl lived up to his WAC Pitcher of the Year award with the tourney’s most dominant outing, which was more than enough for GCU to pounce Sacramento State 11-0 in seven innings at Hohokam Stadium.

The Lopes (38-19-1) are a win away from their first NCAA Division I regional berth, with the first chance coming at 6 p.m. Saturday against the 2 p.m. winner of Sacramento State vs. UT Rio Grande Valley. The 2 p.m. game winner would need to beat GCU on Saturday and Sunday to be the tournament champion.

Ohl won his eighth consecutive start to move to 10-1 on the season with a 2.20 ERA and 100 strikeouts to 12 walks in 95 1/3 innings. It began auspiciously with a leadoff double.

“He feeds off that,” GCU senior catcher David Avitia said of the initial adversity. “He loves it. He goes right after guys and there’s no doubt in his mind that he can get anybody out at any time.”

The Hornets only hit Ohl twice more before the right-handed ace ended the run-rule victory on his career-high 117th pitch.

“I’m the seven-inning guy,” Ohl told his team on the bus before he tied the national lead with his seventh complete game, most of which came as the seven-inning Saturday game starter in doubleheaders.

That came to be because GCU steadily unleashed its second highest hit total of the season in six offensive innings because of the tournament’s 10-run rule. The bottom third of the Lopes’ lineup (Avitia, sophomore right fielder Tayler Aguilar and junior second baseman Jonny Weaver) went 7 for 11 with five RBIs.

That began with Avitia, the defensive star who had his first three-hit game of the season. Avitia continued to be at his best offensively with two outs. He knocked each hit in a two-out situation, starting with a first-pitch RBI double that began the scoring in the second inning.

“It feels really good to do it here,” Avitia said. “We want to get to a regional and that’s the biggest thing right now. It felt great to get some hits down and get the team going.”

As Ohl got on a roll with four consecutive strikeouts, GCU freshman third baseman Jacob Wilson provided more cushion with a two-out, line-drive home run that screamed over the corner of the left-field fence.

Ohl only had one jam to escape in the fourth inning, when it was a 3-0 lead and Sacramento State put two runners on base with one out. He kept a clean slate with a fly out and a strikeout on a full-count, 91-mph fastball.

“It’s just really a domino effect from there,” Ohl said. “I knew that I had command of the off-speeds and pitching off my fastball is my bread and butter so we were in a good spot from there.”

Ohl’s three-pitch mix with improved velocity on his fastball, the 2021 debut of a breaking ball and his outstanding change-up kept Sacramento State guessing. Ohl struck out eight, but also dealt strikes to set up a Lopes defense that has made one error in the past five games.

“I don’t know how you do it, but you’re unreal,” Wilson told Ohl in the dugout after the game.

The Lopes bats unleashed fury on the Hornets from there, allowing GCU to get to a run-rule win that saved the bullpen for Saturday night when senior right-hander Dawson McCarville will get the start in hopes of building on his 1.36 ERA in WAC play.

The Lopes scored three runs with two outs in the fourth inning, starting with Weaver’s RBI double over the center fielder’s head and continuing with senior shortstop Channy Ortiz’s third consecutive hit of the game.

Aguilar made a mercy-rule finish possible by smashing a two-run, 374-foot home run for an 11-0 lead after freshman designated hitter Tyler Wilson’s RBI double.

“It’s good to see the bats are in motion,” GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz said. “Guys are being a little bit more aggressive in hitter’s counts instead of trying to be a little too selective.”

The Lopes enter a potential championship game Saturday night with a rested bullpen, thanks to the clutch 4 2/3 innings of shutout relief delivered by senior Nick Hull in Friday’s win against New Mexico State.

GCU has won 24 of its past 29 games entering the 6 p.m. Saturday game. If it loses, a winner-takes-all game would be at noon on Sunday at Hohokam Stadium.

“It’s obviously the position you want to be in,” Stankiewicz said. “We know we’ve got a long way to go. We understand the game of baseball and how we need to play. We don’t want to get too far in front of ourselves.”