(Courtesy of Saint Mary's Media Relations)
STOCKTON, Calif. — The power continued to roll Friday for Saint Mary’s, as the top-seeded Gaels rolled into Saturday’s West Coast Conference Tournament championship game with a dominating 13-4 win over No. 3 Gonzaga at Banner Island Ballpark.
The Gaels can win the WCC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament with one win Saturday. Saint Mary’s (32-23) will face the winner of Friday night’s elimination game between Gonzaga and Pepperdine, both teams whom they have already defeated at the tournament. Saturday’s championship game is scheduled for a 3 p.m. first pitch. Should the Gaels lose, an if-necessary game would be played approximately 30 minutes following the first game.
Saint Mary’s (32-23) hit two home runs for the second straight day Friday, highlighted by Ian McLoughlin’s grand slam in the Gaels’ six-run sixth inning. Anthony Villa hit a two-run home run in the top of the first to give the Gaels a 2-0 lead. SMC had five extra-base hits Friday after having four in Thursday’s 8-7 11-inning win over Pepperdine in the tournament opener.
“You face Eli Morgan who was in the discussion for Pitcher of the Year in the conference; he’s tricky. He’s got good stuff, and we got to him, which is good to see,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela. “Our plan was that he was going to throw strikes and he was going to try and keep us off balance. Our guys did a good job of letting the ball get to them and not jumping out.”
Johnny York (7-5) was also strong on the mound for Saint Mary’s, going eight innings and striking out five while only walking one against Gonzaga (34-18). He allowed three earned runs (four total) on nine scattered hits, never allowing more than one run to score in an inning. It was York’s eighth outing this season of eight innings or more, and the Gaels improved to 7-1 in those games.
The Gaels chased Bulldogs starter Eli Morgan (10-2) and handed him just his second loss of the season with six runs in the sixth. Gonzaga erased SMC’s early 2-0 lead from Villa’s home run with single runs in the first, fourth and fifth innings. But Saint Mary’s came right back out in the top of the sixth and regained the lead for good after falling behind in the bottom of the fifth on a Taylor Jones RBI single.
Saint Mary’s had its first seven batters in the sixth inning reach safely before the first out was recorded. Nate Nolan tied the game with an RBI double and two batters later Brett Rasso gave the Gaels back the lead with an RBI single. That’s when McLoughlin stepped to the plate. On the second pitch he saw, McLoughlin took Morgan over the right-center field wall for his first-career grand slam and an 8-3 Saint Mary’s lead.
“I was feeling good all day,” said McLoughlin. “I saw (Morgan) was throwing a lot of changeups to Jack(son Thoreson) and myself. I saw him well with the changeup in my first at-bat and then coming up when I got the home run I was looking for a changeup up and he threw it, put a good swing on it and it went out.”
The Gaels never stopped adding to their lead, scoring four more runs in the following seventh inning and tacking on another in the top of the ninth. Zach Kirtley had RBI base hits in both of those innings, finishing with three RBIs.
Saint Mary’s had 16 hits Friday after collecting 13 Thursday. The Gaels are hitting .363 in the WCC Tournament, having scored 21 runs with nine extra-base hits, including four home runs. Villa led all players with a 4 for 5 performance Friday. He was a triple short of the cycle with two singles, a double and a home run while scoring twice. Six Gaels had multiple hits (four on Thursday). Kirtley went 3 for 6 for the second straight day from the leadoff spot.