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Lutes survive and advance with thrilling walk-off win over Linfield

Drew Oord / Photo by Jacqui Gutierrez
Drew Oord / Photo by Jacqui Gutierrez

PARKLAND – Top-seeded Pacific Lutheran kept its Northwest Conference Tournament Championship hopes alive Saturday in walk-off fashion, as the Lutes bounced back from a 4-1 defeat to Whitworth earlier in the day to outlast Linfield 7-6 in an elimination game at PLU Field.

PLU struggled to bring its baserunners home in both games, combining to leave 19 runners on base in the two contests, but the Lutes brought the most important runner home in the bottom of the ninth against the Wildcats. With the game tied up at 6-6, the Lutes used two walks and a throwing error to load the bases with nobody out. A fielder's choice extended the game before Drew Oord drove an 0-1 pitch to left field, easily deep enough for pinch runner Tanner Bogart to score from home and celebrate with his teammates awaiting his arrival at home.

Pacific Lutheran – ranked 18th in the latest Top 25 and first in the NCAA Div. III West Region rankings – eliminated a Linfield squad that had won the last two conference titles and came in ranked 14th in the nation and second in the region. The win improved PLU's record to 28-10 this season and gave PLU its third win in four games against the rival Wildcats this season, with PLU coming from behind in all three wins.

Senior closer AJ Konopaski pitched four innings between the two games and three against Linfield, giving up the tying run in the top of the eighth but earning his first win of the season after striking out four Wildcats and tossing 51 pitches. Garrett Brown started for the Lutes and allowed five runs in 5.1 innings, while Cory Nelson came in to get the final two outs of the sixth. Justin Davis started for Linfield and lasted only three innings, giving up four runs on two hits while walking four. Garrett Miller took the loss despite not allowing a hit in three innings. He walked three and was responsible for Bogart's run although Cody Walker came in and gave up the sacrifice fly.

For PLU the game was a balance of taking advantage of opportunities as Whitworth pitchers and defenders struggled and missing opportunities to put the game away. The Lutes won despite being out-hit 13-5 thanks to nine walks (and one hit batter)and four Linfield errors in the game. Only two of PLU's seven runs in the game were earned.

All those walks and errors led to numerous base runners for the Lutes as PLU had consecutive batters reach base to open the inning four times. Linfield scored twice in the top of the second, and PLU scored once in the bottom of the inning to make it 2-1, but the Lutes' big push came in the bottom of the fourth.

Ben Welch and Jacob Clements both singled to begin the frame and advanced on a wild pitch. Oord walked to load the bases, and Curtis Wildung single to left center to score two and give PLU the lead. Connor Cantu worked a walk to put two on, and both Oord and Wildung came in to score on a fielder's choice throwing error that allowed Tanner Williams to reach safely. Collin Nilson hit a sacrifice fly to center to score Cantu from third, giving PLU a 6-2 lead midway through the game.

Linfield immediately began chipping away at the PLU advantage. A single and a triple led to one run in the top of the fifth, and Jo Carroll's two-run home run in the sixth made it a one-run game. PLU had a chance to rebuild its lead in the bottom of the inning as Cantu Walked, Williams singled and Landon Packard bunted them over to put two runners in scoring position with one out. Tyler Thompson walked to load the bases, but a popup to second ended the inning and left the bases loaded.

Konopaski came in to pitch for the Lutes in the top of the seventh, as the 2014 All-American closer stepped in to go for the three-inning save after already pitching one inning earlier in the day. A walk and a single put runners on the corners for Linfield in the seventh, and after a stolen base left them both in scoring position Konopaski struck out Wildcat third baseman Eric Lawson to end the inning. The Wildcats still found a way to tie it up, however, as Ben Andrews drove a 2-1 pitch a few feet over the wall in left field to lead off the eighth inning. A two-out double put the go-ahead run in scoring position for Linfield, but Konopaski froze pinch hitter Brady Rediger on a 1-2 pitch to end the inning.

PLU went down in order in the eighth, but the Lutes came through in the ninth. Nilson worked a full-count walk to begin the inning and Thompson dropped a bunt to advance the runner. Miller threw the ball away, allowing Thompson to reach safely and Nilson to advance to third. Welch walked to load the bases, and one out later Oord ensured PLU would continue its quest for the NWC's automatic bid to the NCAA Div. III West Regional.

Earlier in the day some spectacular defense by Whitworth helped Pirate starter Spencer Ansett claim a 4-1 pitchers' duel victory over PLU's Kyle Rossman. Ansett allowed one run on five hits in seven innings before giving way to Whitworth closer Carson Blumenthal to pitch the final two innings and earn his eighth save. Rossman yielded four runs over eight innings, while Konopaski pitched a perfect ninth.

Whitworth scored one run in the top of the fourth before Joshua Davis deposited his 10th home run of the season right in front of the scoreboard in right center to score two in the top of the sixth. PLU scored one in the sixth on singles by Cantu, Williams and Nilson, but the Lutes stranded eight runners on base in the game.

Part of that was courtesy of some stellar Whitworth defense, particularly in the bottom of the fourth inning. Williams dropped a drag bunt to open the innings and was narrowly beaten out at first base by a perfect throw by third baseman Nick Motsinger and an equally impressive stretch by first baseman Thomas Wakem. After a walk by Packard Nilson drove a ball deep into left center field that would have easily scored Packard from first, until Whitworth left fielder Skylar Lookabill made an over-the-shoulder diving catch.

Between the two games Cantu reached base six times with one base hit and five walks. Williams and Clements each totaled three hits for the day. Oord walked twice and finished with one hit in the two games to go with his game-winning sacrifice fly. Linfield's trio of Andrews, Jo and John Carroll each finished with three hits, while Finn McMichael tallied two.

PLU will have another chance at Whitworth on Sunday, as the Lutes take on the Pirates at 1 p.m. If Whitworth wins, the Pirates will claim the NWC Tournament Championship; if PLU wins the teams will play one more game at 4 p.m. to determine the tournament titlist.