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AUSTIN, Texas – It wasn't pretty, but top-ranked Linfield emerged from the winner’s bracket championship game of the Austin Regional with a nail-biting 4-3 victory over sixth-ranked Trinity (Texas) that leaves the Wildcats one win away from a return trip to the NCAA Division III Finals in Appleton.
Playing on a hot and sunny Friday afternoon at Tornado Field, the ‘Cats weathered the elements, four defensive miscues and a dangerous Tiger team to advance to Saturday’s championship round.
Nick Fisher (Sr., Lake Oswego, Ore.) smacked his second home run of the tournament – a three-run rocket that gave Linfield an early lead for the third straight day – and a bases-loaded walk drawn by Michael Hopp plated the game-winning run as the ‘Cats (37-6) tied the program single-season wins record.
Zach Brandon (Sr., Cottage Grove, Ore.) threw 5 1/3 innings for the Wildcats, rolling up five strikeouts against one walk. Justin Huckins (Sr., Bend, Ore.) threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings of relief before the Linfield coaching staff called upon ace Chris Haddeland (Jr., McMinnville, Ore.) to close out the game.
“It was definitely a grind of a win,” said head coach Scott Brosius. “We made some huge pitches when we needed to in big situations. Brandon, Huckins and Haddeland, all three were able to make real big pitches and get the outs that we needed at big times.”
Trinity (38-8) lefty Michael Walker held the Linfield offense in check, but the damage had already been done when he took the mound with two outs in the top of the first. Starter Andrew Alig took the loss after giving up four earned runs off three hits and two walks.
Four defensive errors played a part in the Tigers’ rally, highlighted by a two-run sixth inning that cut Linfield’s lead to just one. Faced with a one-out, runner-on-first situation, Huckins forced Jeremy Wolf into a line drive double play to end the inning, and Trinity got on base only three more times over the final three frames.
The Tigers appeared poised to feed the Wildcats some of their own medicine by grabbing an early lead in the top of the first. Three-hole hitter Christian Muscarello reached on an error, and advanced to third on Jonathan Hall’s single to center. But Brandon got Pat Hirschberg to ground out to short and end the threat.
Leadoff man Tim Wilson sent Alig’s second pitch up the middle for a base hit and advanced to second on a throwing error by the Tigers’ starter on a failed pickoff attempt. Corey VanDomelen (Jr., Tigard, Ore.) beat out a slow rolling bunt to advance Wilson to third and put runners in the corners for Fisher.
Linfield’s outfielder punched the ball sky high over the left-field fence for his second home run of the tournament, giving Linfield a 3-0 lead without a single out recorded.
But the ‘Cats weren’t done. Consecutive walks to Clayton Truex (Sr., Kirkland, Wash.) and Nate McClellan (Sr., Shoreline, Wash.) drove Alig from the game and brought Walker to the mound. The freshman lefty forced a pop out but then hit Kyle Chamberlain to load the bases with two outs. Walker then issued a walk to Hopp, plating Truex and turning the lineup over for the Wildcats. Walker finally got Trinity out of the inning by striking out Wilson.
Will Donnan opened the second frame for the Tigers with a leadoff walk, and stole second to move into scoring position. Throwing errors on the next two plays at first base allowed Donnan to score, cutting Linfield’s lead in half. Brandon kept his composure, scooping up Kelly Woodruff’s bunt and shoveling it to Chamberlain for the tag at home before setting up two consecutive fly outs.
Linfield nearly gave its starting pitcher a larger cushion in the bottom of the third. Jordan Harlow blooped a one-out single to center field and advanced to second on Hopp’s base hit up the middle. Wilson drew a walk to load the bags again, but Walker got VanDomelen to ground out and strand the runners.
Brandon worked through some adversity in the top of the fifth, surrendering a one-out single to leadoff hitter Connor Moore and digging himself into an 0-3 hole before striking out Kevin Francke. The junior right-hander then got Muscarello to fly out to end the inning and retreat to the cooler, shaded dugout.
After a hitless fifth inning for Linfield, Hall and Hirschberg shot consecutive singles up the middle and moved to second and third on a sacrifice bunt from Donnan. Kevin Clements drilled a single to right field to score both runners and drive Brandon from the game with one out in the top of the sixth.
Huckins took the mound and threw two straight balls to give Wolf the advantage. His fourth pitch, however, went off the bat and into right center, where Fisher made a diving summersault grab and relayed to first to get out Clements, who had not tagged up and was already around to third base.
Walker retired the side on just 20 pitches in both the sixth and seventh innings to keep the Tigers within striking distance.
Disaster nearly struck for the Wildcats in the top of the eighth, when a miscommunication between Hopp and Truex resulted in a dropped pop up that put Hirschberg on first. A sacrifice bunt and groundout pushed the tying run to third, forcing Brosius to call for Haddeland, who had pitched a complete game on Wednesday.
The sophomore righty got Wolf to fly out, and after Linfield produced zero hits in the bottom of the eighth, coaxed two groundouts and a popup – all three to VanDomelen – to seal the deal.
“One thing about (Haddeland) is he has the ability to throw early after a start. He has kind of a rubber arm,” Brosius said. “We certainly didn’t want to extend him today, but we also knew the importance of this game and getting into tomorrow’s game on the winner’s bracket side of things. We treated it like you do a postseason game as a must-win and got those four outs.”
‘CAT SCRATCH: With 37 wins on the season, Linfield matched the program record set by the 2010 squad, which placed third at the NCAA Finals…Haddeland earned his first save of the year and the third of his career…Brandon made his second postseason appearance…the junior was the only Wildcat pitcher with regional experience entering the tournament…Chamberlain caught his third consecutive game behind the plate...Hopp is hitting a team-best .625 (5-for-8) with a .667 on-base percentage...the Wildcats ran their all-time record against Trinity to 2-0, with both victories coming in the playoffs.
OTHER TOURNAMENT ACTION: Texas-Tyler eliminated Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion Cal Lutheran 3-2 to set up a must-win game against Trinity...the Tigers rallied from one run down to top the Patriots 3-1 and set up a rematch against Linfield.
AHEAD: Linfield and Trinity meet again Saturday at noon Central time. The Wildcats need just one more win to advance to the Finals, while the Tigers must defeat Linfield in back-to-back games to earn a trip to Appleton.
Nick Fisher and Tim Wilson
Three combined hits help put Linfield in driver's seat
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