Written by Student Assistant Christian Bond
TACOMA, Wash. – Nine Northwest Conference teams started the year with hopes of reaching this weekend's NWC Baseball Tournament. George Fox University, Willamette University and Linfield College travel to host and regular season NWC Champion Pacific Lutheran University to find out who the best team is in 2018.
The Lutes (22-14, 18-6) are hosting the conference for the first time since the 2015 season. Their season featured a 12-game winning streak that stretched from March 7 to March 30. PLU took six conference series on the year.
"We're excited to host and have the opportunity to play in a great atmosphere on our home field," head coach Nolan Soete said. "The players are looking forward to the opportunity to compete."
The Lutes feature an extremely high powered offense. Jacob Bockelie has arguably been the best hitter in the conference during 2018. He leads the league in batting average, (.394) and walks (35). Bockelie has swatted seven home runs, tying him for fifth in the conference. Seven home runs doesn't make Bockelie the leader of the Lutes in the long ball. Cole Johnson smashed eight during the regular season, including two last weekend in California. Johnson leads the conference with 54 runs batted in, becoming the new single season RBI king of PLU baseball. He also sits just two RBIs shy of tying the school career record of 125 set by Ryan Aratani (2008-2011).
As a team, the Lutes are incredibly effective at reaching base. They lead the league in on base percentage (.398). They have a .298 team batting average, five points away from the top spot in the conference. PLU has accumulated 389 hits, the most in the NWC.
The young PLU pitching staff has performed well throughout 2018. Sophomore Chad Gideon has led the staff, appearing in 11 games, allowing a 3.56 earned run average in 60 2/3 innings pitched. Justin Armbruester has also appeared in 11 games, throwing 56 2/3 innings with a 3.97 ERA. Armbruester has struck out 51 batters, fifth most by any pitcher in the NWC. In the pen, it's been all about Alex Gregory. Gregory has thrown 49 innings, striking out 32 batters. Gregory has the third lowest ERA (2.57) and has the fifth most saves (four) in NWC.
"We have as good a chance at winning this tournament as any team," Soete said. "Every team in the tournament has had a great season and every game will be evenly matched as far as talent is concerned."
For the Lutes, the tournament starts on Friday at noon with a matchup against George Fox. Willamette and Linfield await both teams in games on Saturday at the double elimination tournament.
Friday: PLU vs. George Fox at 12 PM; Linfield vs. Willamette at 3 PM
Saturday: G1 winner vs. G2 winner at 10 AM; G1 loser vs. G2 loser at 1 PM; G3 loser vs. G4 winner at 4 PM
Sunday: Championship Game One at 12 PM; Championship Game Two (if necessary) at 3 PM
Ticketing Info: Tickets are $6 for adults, $3 for non-NWC students and seniors, and free for NWC students with valid student ID.
Rest of the Tournament Field:
PLU-Linfield Series History: The Lutes and Wildcats have met 132 times since 1980 with Linfield holding an 90-42 edge in the all-time series. On March 3rd and 4th, the two teams met in a three game series, with the Wildcats taking two of three. In the bottom of the ninth in game two, Jacob Bockelie hit a three-run walk-off home run that gave the Lutes a 6-3 win.
About the Wildcats: Linfield (22-14, 16-8 NWC) heads to into the tournament riding an eight-game winning streak. In the last two weeks, Linfield has swept Whitworth University and Whitman College, outscoring both teams 25-4 in a three game series.
"I feel good about our club going into the tournament but know that we are facing three very good teams," Linfield head coach Stan Manley said. "We need to play our absolute best, if we hope to compete."
Ryan Ross and Jake Dennis are two of the toughest outs to get when facing the Wildcats. Ross is batting .369, while Dennis sits at .348. Ross is a power threat, clobbering seven home runs on the season, tying him for the fifth most in conference. Ross has also hit 11 doubles and leads the Wildcats with 36 runs batted in.
On the mound, Carter Buuck is the workhorse, pitching a team-high 63 2/3 innings with a 3.11 ERA and 44 strikeouts. Cason Cunningham is the best strikeout pitcher in the league. He's tallied 78, 16 more than Whitworth's Hugh Smith.
PLU-Willamette Series History: The two teams have met 120 times since 1980 with the Bearcats maintaining a slim 63-57 advantage in the all-time series. Willamette took two out of three from the Lutes on March 30th and 31st. PLU took game two of the series 8-4, riding a complete game on the mound from Cole Johnson.
About the Bearcats: Willamette (23-14, 15-9 NWC) heads to the tournament winners of eight of their last nine games. Willamette swept their final two conference series of the year. Two weeks ago, the Bearcats took three games from University of Puget Sound, outscoring the Loggers 26-10. Last weekend, the Bearcats overpowered Lewis & Clark College, scoring 40 runs to the Pioneers 11 over three games.
Team's might have a better chance walking Willamette's Connor Bailey as opposed to giving him a chance to hit. The junior leads the league with 13 home runs, has a .367 batting average, and has driven in 45 runs. Eric Del Prado is also a threat with a bat in his hand. He's hit nine doubles, a triple, and four homers on his way to driving in 42 runs. Jack Brett can swing it as well. The catcher for the Bearcats has blasted eight home runs, putting him behind his teammate for the second most in conference.
"We have an experienced team and the offense has been clicking the second half of the season." Willamette head coach Aaron Swick said. "We are looking forward to playing in the NWC tournament."
PLU-George Fox Series History: In 80 games against George Fox, PLU has taken home 38 of the meetings. Including 2016, the Lutes and Bruins have met 14 times, with the Lutes coming out victorious in nine of those matchups. On April 8th and 9th, PLU took two of three from the Bruins. In game two of the series, PLU won 7-6 in extra innings. In the series finale, the Lutes shut out the Bruins 8-0. Justin Armbruester threw a complete game, striking out six along the way.
About the Bruins: George Fox (21-16, 13-11 NWC) swept Puget Sound last week in their final series before arriving at the tournament. The Bruins drove in 32 runs in those three games, while allowing the Loggers to score 14. In their last 10 games, George Fox is 6-4, including two losses to the Lutes.
"We are excited to be a part of the tournament," George Fox head coach Marty Hunter said. "Anytime you get in these situations, it's a new season. Should be great tournament, and we are looking forward to competing with the other teams."
Offensively, Kyle Budwick causes trouble for opposing teams at the top of the Bruin lineup. He can hit, putting up a .324 average over the 2018 season. Once Valencia reaches first base, he'll do his best to nab second. He leads the Northwest conference with 20 stolen bases, and has been caught stealing just three times. Kyler Brudwick leads the club with a .377 batting average, swatting 17 doubles and a triple. Sam Swenson provides the power, he's banged six baseballs over the wall, while hitting for a .351 average.
Alex Jondal is the team's ace. He's thrown 72 2/3 innings to the tune of a 3.27 earned run average. He's averaging 7.28 strikeouts per nine innings and has allowed 29 walks. The team has a pair of solid relief arms in Matt Voelzke and Connor Olmstead. Voelzke has a 1.80 ERA in 35 innings pitched. It's tough not to strike out against Voelzke, as he's sat down 53 batters, good enough to average 13.69 strikeouts per nine. Olmstead hasn't had a ton of work, but has a solid 1.59 ERA.