The expression of victory – a dogpile at home plate, Linfield baseball players stacked five high as the hometown fans at Roy Helser Field applauded and cheered – also bore the unmistakable marks of relief.
None of the 10 games played in the NCAA Division III McMinnville Regional was decided by more than three runs. Two of the Wildcats’ four regional victories came in one-run contests. But here stands Linfield, 37-7 overall, No. 2 in the nation in the d3baseball.com poll, and on its way to the NCAA Division III College World Series in Appleton, Wisc., to be held May 23-27 at Fox Stadium.
The Wildcats open play against St. Thomas (Minn.) at 11 a.m. Friday.
“Our goal,” Linfield coach Scott Brosius said, “is to play our best baseball of the year.”
To get to this point, the Wildcats had to record two victories against a game Wisconsin-Stevens Point squad. Linfield escaped Friday afternoon with a 3-2 decision marked by the misstep heard across Division III. On Saturday, the No. 16 Pointers (32-13) held the Wildcats to six hits, but Linfield took advantage of Stevens Point’s miscues in a 4-2 victory.
Cue the dogpile.
“It’s always great to be a little lucky, but to be opportunistic and to capitalize is vital,” Wildcats shortstop Corey VanDomelen said Saturday.
Junior pitcher Justin Davis put Linfield in a position to capitalize. The Sherwood native made just his sixth appearance of the year (and second start) against the Pointers on Saturday, turning in a two-hit, one-run performance in 5 2/3 innings pitched, striking out two. (Davis left the game with a no-decision).
“Our defense is so solid behind us, it makes it a lot easier,” Davis said. “I felt like my curve was working all day. When they sat on it, I went to my fastball. It’s good to be able to locate (pitches).”
Jo Carroll and Kramer Lindell put Linfield on the scoreboard in the fourth inning, crossing home plate after a catcher’s error and a passed ball, respectively. Stevens Point tied the game in the top of the seventh inning when Wildcats reliever Joseph Stevick threw away a groundout, allowing Brandon Kranz to score.
VanDomelen, who entered Saturday’s game 0-for-10 in the regional, hit an RBI double to bring Eric Lawson home in the bottom of the seventh inning for what would be the go-ahead run. Jo Carroll hit an RBI double in the eighth inning, scoring Clayton Truex.
“Tacking on that eighth-inning run was huge,” Brosius said.
It was enough support for junior Chris Haddeland, brought in for a two-inning save situation. The McMinnville native allowed a hit and a walk but was never seriously threatened in recording his first save of the season.
Against a Stevens Point team that had weathered seemingly every punch over two days, Haddeland finally delivered the knockout blow.
“They were definitely fired up to play us,” VanDomelen said. “They had something extra. It was a little chippy.”
How did it get this way? Come back to Friday afternoon, with the Wildcats ahead of the Pointers, 3-2, and Stevens Point up to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Having retired the first batter, Linfield reliever Zach Manley delivered his first pitch to Pointers designated hitter Kyle McHugh. McHugh hit it high, and deep, and the fans at Roy Helser Field watched the ball curl around the left-field foul pole – just fair, according to third base umpire Matthew Martinez. McHugh ran 360 feet to home plate and the shouts and congratulations of his overjoyed teammates.
“I saw the ball go over the fence, obviously,” Brosius said Friday. “I saw the guy running to first and he was watching the ball and looking to see if it was called fair.
“He put his hands up, and he kind of skipped and missed first base with his right foot. So, just something I happened to watch.”
Brosius told his players to appeal the play. Manley threw a new ball supplied by home plate umpire Corky Fazio over to Truex, who stepped on first base. First base umpire Ed Rei signaled that McHugh was out.
Pandemonium briefly ensued.
“I saw him touch second, touch third, shake my hand, go home, touch home plate,” said Wisconsin-Stevens Point head coach Pat Bloom, who was coaching third base during the game. “Big moment in the game. Obviously everyone was excited.”
“When that guy hit the ball, it was just, ‘Aww, crap. Hopefully the guys in the dugout can pick me up,’” Manley said. “Carney (pitching coach Scott Carnahan) from the dugout told me to throw it to first. Then I realized that he didn’t touch it. I just took it and ran.
“That’s a huge swing of momentum, to physically take a home run away from a guy and they can’t do anything about it. I wasn’t going to let up for the guys after that.”
Carroll tracked the ball from left field, though it was well beyond his reach.
“I was just hoping that it was foul,” Carroll said. “When I heard the reaction of everybody going crazy, I thought that it was a foul ball instead of fair.
“When I found out that it was an out because he missed first base, I was ecstatic. It kind of blew my mind.”
McHugh’s misstep was, of course, far from the last out. Manley emerged from the eighth inning unscathed. Kranz singled and reached second base on a Truex error to give Stevens Point extra life, but Manley induced Casey Barnes to ground out to end the game.
Friday’s contest had plenty of fireworks before the eighth inning – Nick Fisher and Carroll each hit solo home runs for the Wildcats – but McHugh’s rounding error resonated throughout the last two days.
“That type of situation, you have to be 100 percent without a shadow of a doubt, correct,” Bloom said. “That changed the complexion of the game and took the game out of the kids’ hands.
“To think that a college baseball player wouldn’t touch a base on a home run … I mean, it’s a kids dream to hit home runs and when you’re a kid, part of the fun is touching every base. To think that he wouldn’t have hit the bag seems, to me, not to be believable.”
Now, of course, the umpire has ruled. Stevens Point had its second chance at Linfield, and the Wildcats took the Pointers out. Their status as defending Division III champions notwithstanding, Linfield will carry to Appleton a chip on its shoulder and a desire to, once again, prove itself at the highest level.
“I don’t think our conference gets a whole lot of love,” VanDomelen said. “It’s nice to bow up and show them we know how to win. We’re not just rolling balls out in the rain.”
Haddeland, Fisher, pitcher Aaron Thomassen and catcher Jake Wylie were named to the regional’s all-tournament team. Fisher earned Most Outstanding Player honors after batting .294 with two home runs and two doubles.
UW-Stevens Point 9, Cal Lutheran 7 (12)
Jimmy Coady’s RBI double and Ben Gerber’s RBI single proved the difference as the Pointers knocked out the Kingsmen on Friday night. Casey Barnes and Taylor Carlson had three hits apiece for Stevens Point.
Cal Lutheran 2, LeTourneau 1
Scott Peters and Aaron Roth scattered nine hits across nine innings for the Kingsmen as they eliminated the YellowJackets. Dillon Yates of LeTourneau hit a home run, while a sacrifice fly and a fielder’s choice gave Cal Lu all the offense necessary.
LeTourneau 3, Illinois Wesleyan 2
The YellowJackets scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to knock the Titans out of the McMinnville Regional.
Linfield 4, Trinity (Texas) 1
Clayton Truex went 2-for-4 with two RBI and Nick Fisher went 2-for-4 with a home run as the Wildcats eliminated the Tigers.
UW-Stevens Point 5, Cal Lutheran 2
Riley Spetz went 3-for-4 with two runs scored as the Pointers defeated the YellowJackets.