Sweep edges ’Cats closer to NWC championship

-photo by Jordan Jacobo/Review staff writer/photographer

Jordan Jacobo

Review staff writer

After sweeping Willamette University on the diamond over the weekend, Linfield moved itself to just one win away from capturing the Northwest
Conference title.

Aided by an explosive, 10-RBI performance from senior catcher Drew Van Cleave, the team was able to distance itself from second-place George Fox University. The Bruins split the series with Pacific Lutheran University to drop three games away from catching Linfield.

Now the ’Cats are in control of their playoff chances with a season-ending homestand against George Fox on April 27 and 28. To earn the NCAA Division III Regional playoff bid awarded to the NWC champion, Linfield must win one of four games against George Fox.

The ’Cats are looking to solidify their standing atop the NWC this weekend by sweeping the coming series.

“Whenever you’re playing George Fox, you want to smash ‘em in the mouth and win every game,” senior
outfielder Kevin Mills said. “Our mentality hasn’t changed, but it makes it nice to know that we only need to win once to move on to the postseason.”

Head coach Scott Brosius said Van Cleave’s play against Willamette set the tone for the rest of the team. Since sophomore catcher Mitch Webb was injured the previous week, Van Cleave stepped up to play in all four games.

At the top of the eighth inning, as Linfield looked to break away from Willamette while holding on to a 5-2 lead, Van Cleave reenergized the team with a towering grand slam to center field, bringing in the top of the lineup.

Linfield never looked back, winning 13-7.

“It was a lot to ask of Drew, but he did a great job offensively and defensively,” Brosius said.

Game two was rained out in the sixth inning and resumed April 20, when the powerhouse pitching lineup began to dominate the Bearcats.

Junior pitcher Cam Larson wrapped up game two with four shutout innings, allowing no hits as Linfield came out on top, 6-5.

Larson went on to start in game three, pitching five innings while allowing one run. Linfield won the game comfortably, 9-1.

The ’Cats closed out the afternoon with an offensive explosion that depleted Willamette’s pitching staff.

None of the seven Bearcat pitchers was able to get more than four outs as Linfield won, 19-2.

Brosius said he was impressed with the play of freshman infielder Dustin Smith, who batted .666, driving in three runs over the weekend.

“We brought him up from the JV team,” Brosius said. “He’s been playing with a lot more confidence as the season has gone on.”

Now the focus rests on carrying momentum into the series against George Fox, players said.

“Other NWC teams have been putting up runs, but they can’t match our pitching staff over a four-game weekend,” Van Cleave said. “We just need to play baseball like we’ve been coached to play all year.”

Linfield, George Fox and PLU spent much of the year battling for the top three records in the conference, but the competition only added to the thrill of the games, Mills said.

“In baseball, there rarely is a team that pulls away and blows out the competition,” Mills said. “It’s a long season, so it’s nice to sit back and realize what we’ve accomplished.”

For nine seniors on the team, the NWC season-ending games will be the final ones in front of friends and family in McMinnville.

“It’s surreal,” Mills said. “I try not to think about it too much, but when it comes up, I know that after four years it’s going to be the last time.”

If the ’Cats close out the weekend by wrapping up the NWC title, they may qualify for the six-team West Region playoffs in Abilene, Texas. The games will be played at McMurry University from May 14 to 18.

“Until then, we focus on this weekend, and we’re certainly not looking ahead or taking anything for granted,” Brosius said. “We’re playing not only for the conference championship, but for the highest seed going into the tournament. Every game remains important.”

Linfield is ranked No. 16 in the April 22 American Baseball Coaches Association’s Division III poll.

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