Successfully adjusting to a coaching change, breaking in a young pitching staff and putting things together at the plate, Linfield was playing its best baseball at season’s end. But due in part to an ultra-tight Northwest Conference playoff race and a brief midseason skid, a fourth consecutive NCAA postseason appearance was not in the cards for the Wildcats in 2016.
With longtime program coach Scott Carnahan stepping back into the head managerial role, Linfield finished with 25-15 record, including 14-10 mark against NWC opponents, and secured its 25th consecutive 20-win season. The ‘Cats tied for third in the final league standings, but found themselves on the short end of conference tiebreak procedures, which cost them a spot in the conference tournament and chance at extended postseason glory.
“It was really a tale of two seasons. It took us a while to find ourselves as far as consistency goes, especially with regard with pitching,” Carnahan said. “Offensively, we were inconsistent early on in the year. In games we could and should have won, we beat the other team in every aspect except the scoreboard. We didn’t execute in key scoring situations; that was our Achilles’ heel early on.”
A 4-0 start to the year followed by a 2-2 showing at the annual Tucson Invitational, and an NWC-opening series loss to Pacific Lutheran followed by close series wins over Puget Sound and Lewis & Clark, epitomized Linfield’s roller coaster season.
After getting swept by Pacific on its home field, Linfield regrouped and closed out the league calendar with four series victories, ending the year with eight straight wins over regular-season champion Whitworth, Whitman and rival George Fox.
“In the latter third of the season we hit our stride and played pretty well,” Carnahan said. “By the end of the year, we could have been considered the best in the conference, especially those last three weeks, but unfortunately were left out of the conference tournament and didn’t have the chance to prove or disprove that.”
Throughout the year, the Wildcats won six of eight NWC series, clinching the weekend in four Game 3 “rubber match” scenarios.
Power hitting was often a recipe for Linfield’s offensive success. Producing a slugging percentage (.450) that ranked near the top of the NWC leaderboard, the Wildcats pounded out 75 doubles, 13 triples and 37 home runs in 40 games. Though the team finished in the middle of the pack for both average (.297) and runs (264), the offense was rarely silenced completely; Linfield was shut out just once the entire year. The Wildcats also swung the bat better in conference play, hitting at a .310 clip compared to .297 across all games.
Individually, four Wildcats boasted averages better than .300. Second-team all-West Region performer Ben Andrews topped the club in hitting (.389), slugging percentage (.671) and on-base percentage (.453), smacking 28 extra-base hits and driving in a team-best 39 runs.
Scott Hilpert, David Mason and Finn McMichael combined for 150 hits – including 42 for extra bases – and 42 drawn walks. Senior third baseman Eric Lawson closed out his career with an all-NWC first team appointment and ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove award.
Ryan Pladson solidified his spot in the lineup as designated hitter by season’s end, while sophomores Ryan Ross and Jake Gellos each reached the .300 plateau in conference play.
Veteran right-hander Riley Newman along with lefty rookies Cason Cunningham and Carter Buuck earned spots in the starting rotation. Cunningham went 5-1 overall with a 2.73 ERA that ranked first among Linfield’s starting staff. Collectively, the Wildcats put together an overall 3.89 ERA and averaged 6.72 strikeouts per game, though those numbers were slightly less glossy (4.63 ERA, 6.43K/G) against NWC hitters.
Cody Walker registered a nearly untouchable 0.82 ERA en route to six saves that allowed him to eclipse the program’s career record. Cal Neely recorded three wins in relief and finished with second-most innings pitched overall, while Joe Perryman and Dylan Peters shouldered much of the relief load as well.
“The pitching staff really solidified, and once we established roles for guys, the team understood what we were capable of,” Carnahan said.
In addition to providing great leadership, five seniors – who won 132 games throughout their careers – compiled a 3.7 cumulative grade point average, setting a high standard for athletic and scholastic achievement for future Wildcats.