Wildcats make a case for national respect after taking two games from the No. 2 Panthers.
In its first nonconference matchup in more than six weeks, the Linfield baseball team proved it belonged with the best, taking the first two contests against No. 2 Chapman University before falling to the Panthers in the final two games in Orange, Calif., April 16-18.
The Wildcats’ split brought their record to 24-10 overall, while the Panthers improved to 24-7 on the season.
Sophomore pitcher Ryan Larson led the ’Cats to the first upset of the series, firing a complete-game five-hitter while only allowing two runs.
While Linfield tagged Chapman junior pitcher Jordan Sigman for 11 hits, it was a Panther error that gave the Wildcats the early lead.
Linfield senior outfielder Tyson Smith began the game with a double and was able to advance to third thanks to an error by Chapman senior third baseman Ryan Prechtl. Junior infielder Dustin Smith drove him in one batter later.
The Panthers evened the score in the second inning when senior first baseman Matt Luzar blasted a home run to left field.
However, the Wildcats responded emphatically the next frame. Junior second baseman Eric Evenson and Tyson Smith began the inning with back-to-back singles, setting the table for Dustin Smith, who lined a double to left field that scored two runs. Sophomore outfielder Zach Boskovich then recorded his only hit of the day: an RBI single.
After Chapman and Linfield exchanged runs in the seventh inning, the Wildcats added insurance for their starting pitcher. With one out in the eighth, senior designated hitter Jared Adamson reached on a fielder’s choice and was driven home by senior catcher Mitch Webb on a double down the left field line.
In the ninth inning, Dustin Smith laced a lead-off single. Three wild pitches later, he scored, giving Linfield a 7-2 advantage.
Larson shut the Panthers down in order in the home-half of the frame to earn his team-leading seventh win of the season.
The loss snapped Chapman’s nine-game win streak that spanned more than a month’s worth of games.
Both Tyson and Dustin Smith went 2-for-4 from the plate, with Tyson scoring three times and Dustin driving in three runs.
Game 2 of the four-game set looked similar to the first, this time with Linfield senior Garrett Dorn denying the Chapman offense of scoring opportunities. Dorn threw a complete game, allowing three runs — two unearned — and six hits, lifting the Wildcats to a 9-3 victory.
Senior first baseman Rhett Fenton tallied three hits in five at-bats for the ’Cats, but it was junior outfielder Cole Bixenman that shined in this game, contributing two hits that both left the yard.
Yet another record-breaking moment occurred in the second inning when Boskovich teed off on his 13th homer of the season, setting the Linfield single-season mark for most long balls.
Boskovich said that the record wasn’t on his mind at all.
“I didn’t know what the record was until a couple of weeks ago, but I tried not to pay much attention to it,” he said. “I actually forgot about it until I got in the dugout and people started congratulating me. My focus was more on the tight race for the conference title.”
The Wildcats held a slim 2-1 lead until a four-run fifth inning broke the game open.
Dustin Smith and senior shortstop Kelson Brown both reached on errors to open the frame. Bixenman then belted his first of two home runs to extend the Wildcat lead. With two outs, Evenson recorded an RBI single to cap off the inning.
Linfield also added two runs in the eighth, highlighted by Bixenman’s second bomb of the contest. He finished the game with four RBIs.
Wildcat senior Reese McCulley took the hill for the third game and had a solid outing despite a three-run sixth inning by the Panthers.
After Linfield took a 2-1 edge in the second inning, Chapman tied it up with a home run by freshman shortstop Tyler Surnbrock in the fifth.
The next inning, the Panthers took hold of the game, driving in three runs — two of which came with two outs.
The ’Cats couldn’t get things going after that, stranding four baserunners.
Although they posted nine hits in the game, Linfield left 11 runners on base, compared with Chapman’s five.
Panther freshman Brian Rauh notched his seventh win of the season after a seven-strikeout performance in a complete-game effort.
In the series finale, Chapman used a six-run fifth inning to pull away from Linfield, salvaging a series split.
Despite tallying 15 hits, including Brown’s conference-leading 18th double, Linfield allowed three unearned runs on three errors.
The Wildcats did get on the board early on in the game when Brown drove in Evenson with an RBI single. After Brown stole second, Bixenman brought in two runs with a base hit, giving the ’Cats a 3-1 lead.
Chapman then erupted for six runs in the fifth inning, including a two-run double by freshman left fielder James Parr. Luzar, senior designated hitter Joe Lehman, sophomore outfielder and Charlie Piro also posted RBIs in the frame.
After a solo shot by Prechtl in the sixth inning, the Panthers knocked the ’Cats out with three runs in the seventh, with two of them scoring on a pair of Wildcat errors.
Picking up his first win of the season was Chapman sophomore Ben Levitt, who entered in relief of freshman Kevin Osaki and allowed just two runs in six innings of work.
Boskovich went 3-for-4 in the matchup with an RBI, while Brown and Bixenman added two RBIs apiece.
“This shows that we can compete with the best teams in the country,” Boskovich said. “We’re definitely one of the best in Division III. But we’ll continue to take care of business on the field, and hopefully the respect will come.”
Linfield returns to Northwest Conference action when it faces George Fox University on April 24 in Newberg, Ore.
The Bruins sit only a half-game back of the second-place ’Cats, while the Pacific Lutheran University Lutes hold a one-game edge with just more than two weeks to play in the regular season.
Sports editorGrant Lucas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org