APPLETON, Wis. – Welcome to the NCAA Division III Finals, where nothing comes easy.
Top-ranked Linfield looked to make a statement in its opening game of the national championship tournament, opening up a 7-0 advantage through six innings at Fox Cities Stadium. The game seemed to be in hand, but Wildcat fans watched in near horror as a mighty lead evaporated when seventh-ranked Itaca’s bats came alive over the final three frames.
Six straight singles scored two runs for the Bombers (38-7) in the bottom of the seventh and three more on four hits and a pair of errors in the eighth made it a 8-5 ballgame, but Linfield (39-7) held on down the stretch for a two-run victory to advance in the winner’s bracket.
“Ithaca was probably as good as anybody we’ve seen this year in terms of putting balls in play, spoiling pitches with two outs and grinding out at-bats,” said head coach Scott Brosius. “No question about it, it was nail-biting to the end for nine innings today.”
Tim Wilson and Jake Wylie (Sr., Eagle, Idaho) provided the early offense for Linfield. Wilson finished 2-for-5 with a solo home run and Wylie pushed two runners across as part of his 3-for-4 outing.
Chris Haddeland (Jr., McMinnville, Ore.) picked up the win, his 14th of the year, and Joseph Stevick (Jr., Bremerton, Wash.) pitched the final three outs to earn his second career save. Haddeland held the Bombers scoreless through six innings, but as his pitch count crept closer to 100, Ithaca’s pitchers began to wear down the ace right-hander and find holes in the Linfield defense.
Corey Caswell paced the Bombers with four hits, Matt Connolly added three more and Max Addy drove in two runs as Ithaca kept 1,410 fans on their toes until the final out.
A leadoff double from Wilson put the ‘Cats in scoring position nearly from the first pitch. Linfield’s left fielder advanced to third on a groundout by Corey VanDomelen (Jr., Tigard, Ore.), and scored on a sacrifice fly from Nick Fisher (Sr., Lake Oswego, Ore.) to center field to give Linfield an early one-run lead. Wylie kept the bats swinging for the Wildcats with a double to the center-field wall, but was left stranded.
“As the leadoff hitter, my job, is to create momentum for the team,” Wilson said. “When I got that leadoff double, I knew it was a big, big hit for us. I knew that Corey would at least get me over and with the middle of our lineup I knew we were going to score.”
Haddeland threw two straight balls to open his first career start at the Finals, but found the zone in time to strike out Ithaca leadoff man Christian Brown. A subsequent foul out to Jordan Harlow and groundout to Michael Hopp gave the Linfield defense a 1-2-3 start.
After a three up, three down inning for the Bomber defense in the top of the second, Corey Caswell drilled a one-out single to right center for Ithaca’s first hit of the game. The senior catcher rounded first looking for two, but a great defensive effort from Fisher helped cut off the runner, and consecutive groundouts ended the threat completely.
Austin Regional all-tournament pick Hopp picked up right where he left off in Texas, dropping a single into the gap in center field to put a runner aboard with no outs. Wilson beat out a double play to reach first, and a VonDomelen single to center placed runners on the corners for Fisher, who drew a walk. With the bases loaded, Wylie drilled a single to right center that gave the ‘Cats a 3-0 lead.
Kramer Lindell (Sr., West Linn, Ore.) followed up with a shot to right that was just out of reach of a diving Tim Henry at second base, bringing Fisher home and pushing Wylie to third. Clayton Truex (Sr., Kirkland, Wash.) beat out a double play in the next at-bat to score Wylie as Linfield pushed its advantage to 5-0.
In a groove, Haddeland got ahead of Stark before sending him back to the dugout swinging, then got Turner to strike out before coaxing Brown into a fly out to left that Wilson hardly had to move to catch.
"My stuff was there," Haddeland said. "I was able to locate for the most part. Ithaca did a really good job spoiling pitches. They probably fouled off more pitches than they hit in fair play and that drove my pitch count up a bit."
Defense continued to rule the roost in the fourth and fifth frames.
In the top of the fourth, Hopp and VanDomelen sent singles up the middle to put runners on first and second, but Pat Lemmo earned his third strikeout of the game to leave Wildcat runners stranded.
Locastro reached on a fielding error in Itacha’s half of the fourth frame, but the Linfield infield bounced back with an around-the-horn double play to wipe the bases. Gee sent Haddeland’s first pitch into right field for what looked to be a base hit, but Fisher charged the fly ball and made a diving grab to rob Ithaca of a hit and end the inning.
Lindell placed a one-out single into shallow right field and moved to second on Truex’ groundout, but Turner matched Fisher’s defensive effort with a sliding catch in left to leave another Wildcat standing on base.
In the bottom of the bottom of the fifth, Connelly ripped a two-out single to right field before Hopp hit the dirt to gather Stark’s grounder and relay to Truex for the final out of the inning.
With five lefties due up for the Wildcats, beginning with eight-hole hitter Kyle Chamberlain, Ithaca turned to lefty Matt Colbert to start the sixth inning. After issuing a walk to Chamberlain, the plan appeared to be working for the Bombers, as Colbert got Ithaca 2/3 of the way through the inning on a strikeout and fly ball to left.
But with two outs, VanDomelen singled up the middle to score Chamberlain, and Fisher dropped a single between three Bombers to advance VanDomelen to third and put runners on the corners. A passed ball allowed another run to cross home plate and send Linfield’s advantage to 7-0. A walk and wild pitch put runners on first and third again for the Wildcats, but Colbert got out of trouble with a fly out to left field.
Things remained relatively quiet until the seventh inning. Standing in against Haddeland for the second time, Henry punched a single up the middle for Ithaca’s third hit of the afternoon. From there, the floodgates opened, as Colby Gee and Caswell shot balls through the left and right sides, respectively, to give the Bombers the offense they had desperately been seeking. Fisher corralled Caswell’s hit and made a whale of a throw from right to home to get Henry out at the plate, but the Ithaca train kept on rolling.
Addy’s single up the middle brought home Gee, and Connolly singled through the right side to load the bases. Luke Stark followed up with an RBI single through the opposite side of the field. Haddeland and the rest of the Linfield defense finally got out of the inning with a fly out to left and a line drive to Harlow’s glove, leaving three Bombers on base.
Wilson added an insurance run for the Wildcats in the top of the eighth, when his fly ball to right went 325 yards over the right-field wall and was ruled fair. Wylie shot a two-out double to center field, but Linfield’s lead remained a comfortable 8-2.
Haddeland’s day was done after seven innings, which brought Justin Huckins (Sr., Bend, Ore.) to the mound. The junior closer delivered a first-pitch strike, but the wheels quickly started to wobble for the Wildcat defense. Tim Locastro drew contact and extended a single into a triple when Wilson slipped and fell trying to make a play in left field. Henry’s single to left easily scored the runner and extend the rally. Caswell singled through the left side and Addy reached on a mishandled ball in the four hole that allowed Henry to score.
Connolly singled to load the bases, and a wild pitch scored Caswell. Stark drew a walk to load the bases again, but Linfield finally escaped the eighth doing what it had done 50 times already this season: turning a double play.
After retiring the side in the ninth, Ithaca had one final opportunity to extend or outright win the game, and came awfully close to accomplishing the feat. Brown reached on a fielding error and advanced to third on Locastro’s double just inside the left-field foul line. A hit batter loaded the bases, and Gee’s sacrifice fly brought home Brown to bring the Bombers to within three. Caswell singled through the left side, and Addy fought Stevick to a full count before striking out. With the bases loaded, Connolly sent a ball to center field that looked to score at least one runner, but Lindell made a diving catch to secure the win for the Wildcats.
Lemmo, the Empire 8 Pitcher of the Year, took the loss after surrendering five earned runs on nine hits through five innings. Haddeland recorded five strikeouts against zero walks.
Linfield committed four errors on the day, surrendered 14 hits and needed two different closers to sew things up, but the drama was worth it for the all-important tournament-opening win.
“It was huge,” VanDomelen said of the victory. “It sets us up well in terms of pitching, even having a couple of guys out of the (bullpen)...In terms of getting momentum and getting used to playing on this level and this stage, I think it’s a huge thing for the team as a whole."
Brosius viewed Linfield’s shaky defense as an “abberation,” but also expressed confidence in his team's ability to improve on that side of the game.
“We need to do a better job, especially at the end of the game, of playing for outs and just making plays,” he said. “If you can limit a team to three outs in an inning, then with our pitching we’ll have success.
“That’s been the strength of our team all year long: we pitch it well, we throw strikes. They’re going to put the ball in play and so we just need to make the routine plays behind them and then rely on when our situations come up offensively to put the runs on the board.”
'CAT SCRATCH: Linfield improved to 3-0 in opening-round games at the NCAA Finals, and 3-0 all-time against Ithaca...Wilson became the third Wildcat in program history to reach the 200-hit plateau...Fisher and Wylie extended their hitting streaks to eight and seven games, respectively...Finn McMichael (Soph., Richland, Wash.) made his postseason debut as a pinch runner in the eighth inning...Hopp left the game in the sixth with an injury after an attempted bunt popped up back into his face...he will be a gametime decision Saturday...the Wildcats ran their record to 9-3 in games decided by two runs or less...about 45 friends and family members made the trip to Appleton, and enjoyed a pre-game tailgate put on by Linfield's host family.
OTHER TOURNAMENT ACTION: Southern Maine opened the tournament with an extra-innings victory over Millsaps, 2-1 in 10 frames…Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Manchester also went extra innings, in which the home-state Pointers rallied for the 6-5 victory...Kean was the only team to win by a comfortable margin, topping Webster 14-8 in a game that concluded around midnight.
COMING UP: The Wildcats face Southern Maine Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Central time.
Doubles and homers against Ithaca
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