Wolves Run Wild, Blitz ‘Cats For Championships Game 1 Win
No. 2 seed Western Oregon took advantage of a five-run seventh inning to take a 9-5 win over No. 3 seed Central Washington. | Photo by Shi Robison
No. 2 seed Western Oregon took advantage of a five-run seventh inning to take a 9-5 win over No. 3 seed Central Washington. | Photo by Shi Robison

Friday, May 10, 2024
by Thomas Lal

BILLINGS, Mont.  – Crushed baseballs and chaos proved to be the theme of the afternoon as No. 2 seed Western Oregon took a 9-5 victory over No. 3 seed Central Washington to open the 2024 GNAC Baseball Championships at Pirtz Field in Billings.

The first game of the round-robin portion of the tournament went the way of the Wolves after both teams supplied plenty of fireworks early in the contest before settling into a mid-game rhythm that was rocked by a combined eight runs in the seventh inning. Bryce Bond earned the win for the Wolves after working two innings in relief without allowing a run on two hits and two walks. Central Washington reliever Aaron Robertson was tagged with the loss following 0.1 innings where he allowed five runs on five hits.

Offensively, the Wolves were led by Curran Mitzel with a 3-for-5 performance that included a pair of runs scored and a double along with John Oleson with a 1-for-3 day at the plate that featured three RBIs and two runs scored, including a three-run home run. The Wildcats were led by Kevin Varner Jr. as he went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and an RBI courtesy of a solo home run.

The Wildcats got things going early in a big way, opening the game with back-to-back home runs off of Western Oregon starter Jacob Memmott.  Varner Jr. put the first run on the game on the board with a solo blast to right field. Perhaps smelling blood in the water, catcher Austin Ohland followed that up by going the other way and launching a shot over the left field fence on the very first pitch he saw.

The two solo home runs proved to be the first of four consecutive hits for the Wildcats in the first frame as reigning GNAC Player of the Year Ben Leid reached first on an infield single and Andrew Sharp knocked a hard-hit single to right field. After a brief meeting on the mound, Memmott stemmed the bleeding with his first punchout of the game against Ryan McCarthy and forced Jake Felton into a flyout to cap off his inning.

The Wolves answered right back in the bottom of the frame, taking advantage of a lead-off single by Mitzel and an RBI-single by Justyn Herzog to slash the lead in half. After the RBI, Herzog made his way around to third base on a sacrifice bunt by Owen Bischoff and a throwing error for CWU starting pitcher Jonathan Garza II. He came around to score two batters later on a wild pitch by Garza.

After the opening offensive melee, both Memmott and Garza settled down in the second. Memmott bounced back from his shaky first inning with a 1-2-3 second where he looked much more relaxed while Garza allowed one hit, a double by WOU’s Zach Valdez, but didn’t allow anything to come across the plate. Memmott’s afternoon continued to roll in the third as he responded to hitting Ohland with a pitch by forcing a ground ball by Leid that the WOU infield turned into a pair of outs.

The Wolves took their first lead of the game with their first home run of the game in the bottom of the third courtesy of Randy Stultz. The right-fielder launched his shot over the left field fence to score two runs, also bringing Oleson around to score after he reached base on a hit-by-pitch. Memmott held the lead in the top of the fourth, earning all three outs via swinging punchouts and working himself out of a two-out jam with runners on the corners.

From there, Memmott and Garza each tossed three shutout innings to cap off their afternoons on the mound. Memmott finished the day with two runs allowed on five hits, two walks and two hit batters while striking out four. Garza ended his outing with four runs allowed, three earned, on six hits and a walk while striking out a game-high seven batters.

The Wildcats proved to be opportunistic hunters in the top of the seventh as they reclaimed the lead for the first tie since the third frame. Right-hander Owen Murdock took the mound for Western Oregon in the top of the seventh, but faced only three batters out of the bullpen after allowing a leadoff double to Jake Madson, a single by Marcus Manzardo and a hit by Varner Jr. That brought Bryce Bond into the game for WOU with bases loaded and no outs.

The ‘Cats clawed back their first run of the inning as Bond attempted to pick off Madson at third base but threw the ball past his third baseman Emiliano Alarcon allowing Madson to score. The Wildcats capitalized on another mistake in the next at-bat as a wild pitch by Bond allowed Manzardo to score and tie the game at 4-4 with one out.

Central Washington kept the good times rolling ahead of the seventh-inning stretch with a base-hit through the left side of the infield by Ryan McCarthy to bring Varner Jr. around to score and give the ‘Cats a 5-4 lead. Bond brought the inning to a merciful end for the Wolves by striking out Felton and forcing Brady Hinkle into a ground out.

Western Oregon wasted no time at all to get the game tied back up as Valdez took the second pitch he saw from Robertson deep to left field, leveling the score at 5-5. Mitzel immediately followed up Valdez’s solo shot with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Herzog. Bischoff showed his speed once again as he legged out an infield single to put runners on the corners with just one out after previously swiping second base in the third frame.

The Wolves made it a brief lead for the Wildcats as they reclaimed the advantage once again on an RBI-single by designated hitter AJ Cortese. It was Oleson, however, who put the biggest exclamation mark of the inning on the board as he blasted a three-run no-doubt home run to left field to put WOU up 9-5. The Wolves ended the frame with five runs on six hits heading into the top of the eighth.

That offensive outburst proved to be enough for the Wolves as they thwarted an attempted comeback in the eighth inning before turning the ball over to right-hander Devin Bell to secure the final three outs of the game. Bell did so with two ground outs and one fly out, allowing just one base runner on a hit-by-pitch.

With the win Western Oregon moves to 1-0 in tournament play ahead of the Wolves’ second game of the day at 7:00 p.m. (Mountain). Central Washington takes on No. 1 seed Northwest Nazarene in the second game of the afternoon at 3:30 p.m. needing a win to stay alive in the double-elimination tournament.