(Courtesy of Saint Mary's Athletic Communications)
STOCKTON, Calif. — Third time was the charm Thursday for top-seeded Saint Mary’s in its first trip to the postseason.
The Gaels got three clutch hits – two to tie the game and the last to win it – to walk off victorious in 11 innings over No. 4 seed Pepperdine, 8-7, in the opening game of the 2016 West Coast Conference Baseball Championship Tournament at Banner Island Ballpark.
“I was scared of the ‘just happy to be here’ feeling. I didn’t have it and I was hoping our guys didn’t have that, and I don’t think they did,” said Saint Mary’s head coach and WCC Coach of the Year Eric Valenzuela. “I think we faced one of the best pitchers in the country (A.J. Puckett) and he did what he’s done to everybody for seven innings. We used a lot of pitching today, but we still have our two starters ready to roll. And in this ballpark, those two teams that are playing next, BYU and Gonzaga, are scary.”
Nate Nolan was the man of the night, hitting not one but two game-tying home runs to lift the Gaels (31-23). Nolan’s first game-tying shot came in the bottom of the eighth, a three-run home run to right-center field, tying the game at 5-5 and erasing what began as a 5-0 deficit to the Waves (28-23). He stepped to the plate with a chance to tie it again in the bottom of the 10th, the Gaels trailing 7-5 and a man on. He promptly homered on the first pitch he saw to left field, tying it at 7-7. He finished the game 2 for 4 with his eighth and ninth home runs of the season and five RBIs.
“You just have to have confidence in what you’ve done to get to where you are,” said Nolan. “I feel like I’ve put in a lot of work, as a team we’ve put in a lot of work and so when it comes down to big situations like that you just have to trust in your ability and trust the work you’ve put in.”
“He’s been perfect for us because he’s been so good defensively, and anything plus from the plate is just a plus,” said Valenzuela about Nolan. “We know he has power, has a great swing, and coming to a place where the wind’s blowing out a little bit plays to the hitters’ advantage. He did his thing, got some balls up and they got out.”
Brett Rasso twice led off the following inning after Nolan hit a game-tying home run with a base hit, first with a double in the bottom of the ninth and again with a single in the 11th. In the 11th, he moved to second on a passed ball, then went to third on a seeing-eye single by Charles Zaloumis. That’s when Zach Kirtley came to the plate, singling to left field on the second pitch he saw to score Rasso and win the game for Saint Mary’s. Kirtley finished 3 for 6, while Rasso went 2 for 3.
“I just tried to slow everything down, act like it was my first at-bat of the season,” said Kirtley. “Just take it nice and slow, do it for the team. Everything is for the team. I would go to war with every single one of these guys. It was unreal. I’ve never been a part of a team with so much fight. It’s an unbelievable experience. The team camaraderie is off the charts. These guys are unreal – best teammates I’ve ever had.”
“You couldn’t ask for a more perfect guy to be up in that situation, your catalyst of the team,” said Valenzuela. “I know he’s been struggling as of late, but that’s the guy you want in that situation. He came through like he has plenty of other times, but it all started with Brett Rasso. Twice against a very good pitcher he did his thing, so it’s good to see.”
The Gaels fell behind Pepperdine ace and WCC Pitcher of the Year A.J. Puckett 5-0 through seven innings. Puckett retired nine in a row from the first to the fifth innings and worked around allowing multiple base runners in the first and fourth. He had thrown seven shutout innings until his exit in the eighth when he loaded the bases without recording an out.
Anthony Villa broke through for the Gaels first, hitting a one-out, two-run single in the eighth to make it 5-2 and bring Nolan to the plate. Pepperdine got two runs in the top of the 10th on a two-out, two-run triple from Matt Gelalich to take a 7-5 lead, but Nolan erased that, too, in the bottom half. Pepperdine scored five of its seven runs in the game with two outs.
The Waves had 16 hits but 12 were singles – six in the infield – as they slowly chipped away at SMC starter Corbin Burnes and the Saint Mary’s pitching staff in the early-goings. Burnes finished with 10 strikeouts to just one walk, but gave up a season-high 10 hits and threw 113 pitches in 5 1/3 innings.
“They did a good job,” said Valenzuela of Pepperdine’s work versus Burnes. “The couple of times that teams have gotten to him, what they’ve done is foul off a lot of pitches. They did a good job with two strikes, were patient with the breaking ball early, which forced him to be in the zone with his fastball. They did it, got his pitch count up early and that’s what happens. But our guys just battled, they fight. We had some good late-inning pick-ups from the ’pen, they were able to give us some zeroes late to be able to do that.”
Anthony Gonsolin (3-3) picked up the win with 2 1/3 innings of relief, his only blemish coming as the two-run, two-out Gelalich triple. Gonsolin also singled ahead of Nolan to score as part of his game-tying home run in the 10th.