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Lutes seal sweep and outright conference crown with 5-4 win over Pioneers

PLU celebrates after claiming the outright 2015 Northwest Conference regular-season title / Photo by Amanda Williams
PLU celebrates after claiming the outright 2015 Northwest Conference regular-season title / Photo by Amanda Williams

PARKLAND – Pacific Lutheran had no interest in sharing. One day after claiming at least a split of the 2015 Northwest Conference regular-season baseball title, the Lutes defeated Lewis & Clark 5-4 Sunday afternoon to conclude the series sweep and clinch the outright crown at PLU Field.

By finishing first in the regular-season standings, the Lutes earn the right to host the inaugural Northwest Conference Tournament April 24-26. The four-team, double-elimination tournament will also include second-seeded Linfield, third-seeded Whitworth and fourth-seeded George Fox. PLU and George Fox will open the tournament on Friday at 1 p.m. The winner of the conference tournament receives the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Div. III West Regional.

Saturday's doubleheader saw the PLU offense put together the first back-to-back 20-run performances in team history and the Lutes and Pioneers total 61 runs. So naturally on Sunday starting pitchers Garrett Brown and Alex Heimbrodt combined to pitch 16 innings while allowing five earned runs between the duo.

Brown held the advantage in earning his fourth win of the season, striking out seven Pioneers while giving up three earned runs on eight hits and one walk. His day finished at 109 pitches as he gave way to 2014 All-American AJ Konopaski, who recorded the final three outs for his 10th save of the season and the 30th of his record-breaking PLU career. Konopaski became only the sixth pitcher in NCAA Div. III history to reach 30 career saves.

Collin Nilson hit his third home run in as many games, crushing his sixth of the season over the wall in left center field in the bottom of the fifth to break a 4-4 tie with what proved to be the game-winning run. Nilson's homer proved to be the lone extra-base hit for the Lutes on Sunday as five Lutes contributed on hit in the win. Nilson scored a pair of runs as he also reached base via walk, while Landon Packard, Tyler Thompson and Ben Welch each had a single and a run scored. Thompson and Welch each also drove in a run, as did Drew Oord.

Eric Hyun tallied four of Lewis & Clark's nine hits in the game, while Bradley Lezak finished with two hits and three runs scored and Tommy Massari also picked up a pair of hits. Heimbrodt took the complete-game loss after giving up two earned runs on five hits in eight innings.

Lewis & Clark got on the board first with a run in the first inning and another in the third. The first two batters reached against Brown to begin the day as Lezak walked and Hyun singled. A bunt advanced the pair, and Lezak scored on a single by Sean Shepherd. The third inning followed a similar script, as Lezak and Hyun led off with a pair of singles and advanced on a sacrifice bunt. Shepherd brought Lezak home for the second time on a groundout to shortstop.

The Lutes took advantage of a pair of Lewis & Clark errors to turn the two-run deficit into a two-run lead with four runs in the bottom of the third. Packard hit a one-out single through the left side, and Nilson reached on the Pioneers' first error of the frame. Thompson singled up the middle to score Packard from second, and Welch followed with a single through the right side to score Nilson and tie the game. Brett Johnson reached on the Pioneers' second error, allowing Welch to reach third and Thompson to score. Oord scored Welch with a groundout to second to make it a 4-2 game.

Lewis & Clark tied it in the top of the fifth, flipping the script on the Lutes as a PLU error kept the inning alive for the Pioneers. Lezak and Hyun again began the inning with consecutive singles and advanced on a bunt. Shepherd struck out swinging but reached first on a wild pitch to leave the bases loaded with one out. Michael Kinkenon grounded out to second to score Lezak, and Tommy Massari reached on a PLU error that allowed Hyun to score with the tying run.

That tie did not last long, as Nilson stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the fifth and sent the second pitch he saw more than 380 feet to left center. Both pitchers settled into a groove after that, as the Lutes did not pick up another hit and Lewis & Clark tacked on only two more hits the rest of the way.

PLU closes out the Northwest Conference schedule with an 18-6 conference record and a 26-9 overall mark. The Lutes won all eight conference series, taking two of three six times and sweeping the final two series against Puget Sound and Lewis & Clark to win the regular-season title by two games over Linfield and Whitworth (tied for second at 16-8). In fact, PLU has not lost consecutive games all season en route to its third regular-season conference crown in the last nine years.