Baseball Brings Championships Season To Oregon
Jalen Garcia (left) hit two home runs last week to earn recognition as GNAC Player of the Week.
Jalen Garcia (left) hit two home runs last week to earn recognition as GNAC Player of the Week.

Monday, May 8, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. – After winning a 14th GNAC regular season title, Western Oregon enters the 2017 GNAC Baseball Championships as the top seed with the conference’s top four teams at Concordia’s Porter Park for a double-elimination tournament.

The Wolves will face No. 4 seed Montana State Billings in the first round, while the other contest on the first day of the tournament features No. 2 Central Washington and No. 3 Northwest Nazarene. All four teams finished the regular season within six-and-a-half games of each other in the GNAC standings.

The last week of the regular season served as a preview to the GNAC Championships with the four teams in the tournament playing each other. If those final eight games serve as any indication, the GNAC Championships will be a tightly contested tournament. Western Oregon and Northwest Nazarene split their four-game series, while Montana State Billings took three of four against Central Washington with the final two wins coming by just one run.

During the regular season, Western Oregon won seven of eight games against Montana State Billings, while splitting eight games with both Central Washington and Northwest Nazarene. The Wolves’ first two wins against the Crusaders began an eight-game winning streak that was the longest in the GNAC this year.

The Wolves scored a season-high 20 runs in the penultimate game of the regular season and did so without hitting a home run all game. Western Oregon has proven all season that power isn’t needed to put runs on the board with only nine of 399 hits leaving the park all year.

Justin Wakem paces the team’s .303 batting average, hitting .367 with five doubles as his only extra-base hits. One of the keys to that high batting average is that Western Oregon has struck out 83 times less than any other GNAC team. Jacob Martinez ranks as one of the toughest players to strike out in NCAA Division II with just nine strikeouts in 173 plate appearances.

Montana State Billings enters the tournament as the league’s hottest team with nine wins in the last three series, and is looking to overcome the team it lost to seven times in the regular season. The Yellowjackets boast the league’s most productive offense, scoring 328 runs despite ranking third in batting average. They lead the league in extra-base hits (154), walks (188) and stolen bases (65).

From a statistical standpoint, nobody represents the MSUB offense better than Zach Robinson. The senior ranks fourth on the team in batting average at .308, but leads the team in extra-base hits (20), walks (34) and stolen bases (17). He has also scored a program record 51 runs.

Central Washington matches up well with all of the other three teams in the tournament, having split with all three teams during the regular season for a combined record of 12-12. The Wildcats also have a pitching staff that is built for tournament play.

The team leader in innings pitched is Jake Levin, who has recorded wins in five of his last six decisions and averages six innings per start. Throughout most of the GNAC season, left-hander Mackenzie Gaul got the start in the second game of each series. He hurled three complete-game shutouts and struck out a league-best 68 batters with a 6-2 record and 3.06 ERA. After that, head coach Desi Storey can turn to his 6-foot-3 right-hander Griffin Davis or freshman JJ Asinas to take the start on the mound.

Defending champion Northwest Nazarene has hit a league-best 62 home runs, which has been a big reason for its success this year. The trouble for the Crusaders at this year’s GNAC Championships is that Porter Park is the most difficult field in the GNAC to hit a home run. During their first visit to Porter Park this year early in March, the Crusaders launched two home runs in the series opener, the only ones of the series.

Senior Andrew Hemlstadter hit one of those two home runs and enters the tournament just one double away from becoming the fifth player in GNAC history to reach 50 career doubles. Billy King had to settle for finding the alleys for extra-base hits the last time he was in Portland, but the two-time GNAC Player of the Week has hit a league-best 14 home runs this year.

The GNAC Championships open with Central Washington and Northwest Nazarene playing each other at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday followed by Western Oregon and MSU Billings meeting at 7 p.m. This is the first year that the tournament has been expanded to four teams. The tournament is in its fifth year of existence with Western Oregon winning the tournament in 2013 and 2015 while Central Washington took home the trophy in 2014. Northwest Nazarene won on its home field in 2016.