APPLETON, Wis. – After watching the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point stage two dramatic comebacks on each of the previous two nights, top-ranked Linfield beat the Pointers at their own game Sunday, mounting a late-inning rally that guarantees the ‘Cats will be playing for a national title Tuesday at Fox Cities Stadium.
By virtue of the 5-3 victory, the Wildcats (41-7) are assured a game on championship day of the NCAA Division III Finals. Depending on the outcome of Linfield-Ithaca, round 2 – to be played Monday at 3:30 p.m. Central time – the Wildcats will either have the luxury of needing to get beat twice, or play a winner-take-all game.
Stevens Point (41-10), meanwhile, must battle its way through elimination games to get to the championship, beginning with a Memorial Day noon game against Southern Maine.
It took a lot of patience, but Linfield’s leadoff man and heart of the order came through in the nick of time against the Pointers. Tim Wilson had only one hit all evening, but it was a monster triple that knotted the score at three runs apiece with no outs in the bottom of the eighth. A sacrifice fly from Jake Wylie (Sr., Eagle, Idaho) plated the game-winning run, and Kramer Lindell (Sr., West Linn, Ore.) added some insurance with a two-out single to left field that put the Wildcats up by two runs, three outs away from victory.
"We were hitting the ball hard all game and we knew eventually they’d start falling," Wilson said during the post-game press conference. "We just needed one guy to get a big hit and then we knew the rally would start."
Despite giving up nine hits and three runs, an unshakable Zach Brandon (Sr., Cottage Grove, Ore.) pitched an excellent seven innings for the Wildcats. Even when the Pointers put him on the ropes – including a one-out, runners on first and second situation in the top of the seventh – Brandon kept his wits about him and worked his way out of trouble with limited damage to keep Linfield within striking distance offensively.
"That was one of the gutsier performances we’ve had this year," said head coach Scott Brosius. "He made some big pitches with guys on base when he needed to. There was nothing easy about what he had to do tonight and to get us through seven like he did I thought was really huge."
Garett Speyer (Sr., Vancouver, Wash.) and Chris Haddeland (Jr., McMinnville, Ore.) threw one scoreless inning apiece to close out the game, with Speyer earning his first win of the season and Haddeland taking his second save of the year.
Ben Messenger was incredibly effective for Stevens Point through six frames, limiting the ‘Cats to just two hits and preventing the designated home team from capturing any early momentum. The freshman right-hander held Linfield scoreless until the seventh, when he gave up two runs, and left the game with the Pointers holding a slim one-run lead.
"He did a really good job commanding pitches and made it real tough on us," Brosius said of Messenger. "We just had to keep grinding."
Dan Douglas, Ryan Schilter and Bobby Gregorich supplied two hits each for the Pointers, who came out swinging after digging themselves a couple of early holes in their first two games.
Douglas sent Brandon’s first pitch into right field, and Schilter followed up with a single through the left side that put a runner in scoring position with zero outs. Douglas moved to third on Sean Gerber’s fly out to center and scored on Jimmy Coady’s sacrifice fly to left. Wilson made a great throw to Kyle Chamberlain at the plate, but the tag was no good and the Pointers took an early 1-0 lead.
Messenger shut down the top of the Wildcat order, denying the first five batters he faced before Clayton Truex (Sr., Kirkland, Wash.) poked a two-out single to right field. Linfield’s first base runner was left stranded, however, when Messenger got Jordan Harlow to foul out to Gerber at first.
Both pitchers held the opposing offenses in check over the middle innings. After Messenger retired the side in the top of the third, Brandon matched the effort, getting a diving grab from Wilson in left, a strikeout and an easy groundout to first to sit down the Pointers’ 5-6-7 hitters.
Linfield almost broke through in the bottom of the fourth, but a close play at the plate kept the ‘Cats off the board. Nick Fisher (Sr., Lake Oswego, Ore.) sliced a grounder up the left side that third baseman Riley Spetz was unable to handle cleanly, and advanced to second on Wylie’s single to deep left. Lindell beat out a double play to move Fisher to third and keep the Pointer defense on the field, but when Lindell attempted to steal second during the next at-bat, Fisher took off for home, where second baseman Clint Rose gunned him down for the final out of the inning.
Sparked by successive singles from Gregorich and pinch hitter Brandon Kranz, Stevens Point gained some separation from Linfield in the top of the seventh. Rose moved both runners over with a sacrifice bunt, and Douglas’ RBI single up the middle gave the Pointers a 2-0 lead with runners on the corners. After a sacrifice fly from Schilter plated a third run, Stevens Point put another two runners aboard when Gerber drew a walk. Coady almost made Brandon pay dearly for the base on balls with a rocket to right center, but Fisher sprinted to the warning track to snag the fly ball and prevent the Pointers from really pulling away.
Lindell got the Linfield offense going in the bottom of the seventh with a one-out single to right field, and Truex brought him home with a double off the left-field wall. Truex advanced to third on a wild pitch, and nearly scored when the throw from Schilter to Spetz went astray, but got tripped up by the bag and stayed on the far corner. Harlow plated him anyway with a sacrifice fly to right field that brought the ‘Cats back to within one and quieted the predominantly pro-Pointers crowd.
"Up to that point, it had been a rarity to have a guy on second base, just a base hit away from scoring," Truex said. "It was great to know that when we had our opportunities we took advantage."
Speyer took over for Brandon to start the eighth, and immediately set up a groundout to third for an easy out. Spetz reached during the next at-bat on a fielding error – Linfield’s fifth of the tournament – but Corey VanDomelen (Jr., Tigard, Ore.) snagged Gregorich’s line drive and relayed to first for a key double play.
Messenger’s final pitch of the game nailed Michael Hopp, which put the game-tying run on base with no outs. Wilson took a couple of pitches to size up reliever Tyler Flood before drilling a triple to right field that scored Hopp and knotted the score at 3-3.
After getting an out, the Pointers intentionally walked Fisher. Wylie’s fly ball to right gave Wilson plenty of time to tag up and touch home. In addition to giving Linfield its first scoring advantage of the game, the play was also momentum-changing in that throw from the outfield did not cut off Fisher, who advanced to second. With another runner in scoring position, Lindell came through with another big hit, a two-out single to left field, to plate Fisher and give the ‘Cats some breathing room heading into the final three outs.
The coaching staff called upon its ace, Haddeland, who had thrown seven full innings in Linfield’s tournament-opening win against Ithaca. The sophomore righty set up a fly ball and groundout before recording his sixth strikeout of the tournament that ended the game and drew the Wildcats out of the dugout.
"There's no script," Brosius said of the team's mindset going into the ninth inning, knowing the Pointers' tendency for staging late comebacks. "We know these games are 27 outs and it doesn’t end until there’s 27 outs."
'CAT SCRATCH: Linfield won its first game against Stevens Point...the Pointers defeated the 'Cats 2-1 in the only other meeting between the two programs at the Moline Regional back in 2008...this marked the first time the Wildcats have started the national tournament 3-0...both of Haddeland's saves this year have come in the postseason...Wilson's triple was the seventh of his career, moving him into a tie for fifth all-time in the Linfield record books...the record (8) is shared by four different players...Chamberlain caught his third consecutive game behind the plate...Linfield was outhit (9-6) for the first time in the Finals...2,586 fans - the majority supporting the home-state Pointers - were on hand to watch the game...teams and spectators were treated to a post-game fireworks show...assistant coach and director of athletics Scott Carnahan delivered the game ball to Marilyn Owens, wife of Arnold "Arnie" Owens, the Linfield alum and longtime baseball supporter who passed away Saturday night in Appleton.
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Stevens Point plays Southern Maine in an elimination game on Monday...if Linfield defeats Ithaca in the afternoon contest, the Bombers will be eliminated and the Stevens Point-Southern Maine winner will need to beat Linfield twice on Tuesday...if Ithaca defeats Linfield, then Ithaca will face the Stevens Point-Southern Maine winner on Tuesday, and the winner of that game goes on to play Linfield in a winner-take-all game for the title.
OTHER TOURNAMENT ACTION: Southern Maine ended Webster’s season with a 7-2 victory in Sunday’s first game…Ithaca stayed alive with a 3-1 game over Kean.
AHEAD: Linfield and Ithaca face off for the second time this tournament Monday at 3:30 p.m. Central time. The contest is an elimination game for the Bombers, who fell two runs short of completing a late-inning comeback bid in a 8-6 loss to the Wildcats on Friday.
Game-tying RBI triple in 8th
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