Two of the best NAIA baseball teams on the west coast refused to give each other an inch all weekend long in Santa Barbara, and both walked away with two wins and two losses.
After splitting a pair on Friday, #16 Hope International (25-7, 13-3 GSAC) broke out the bats and won game one on Saturday by a score of 14-11. Then, #7 Westmont (28-4, 17-3 GSAC) scratched and clawed in game two to earn a 7-5 win and split the four-game series.
At the end of the series, Westmont retains a two game lead over Hope International and Vanguard for first place in the Golden State Athletic Conference.
“We had our backs against the wall in game two, knowing we were facing one of the top arms in the country,” said Westmont head coach Robert Ruiz. “Our goal is always to win the weekend, but when you’re forced to earn a series split against an arm and a team of that caliber, I’m proud of the way our guys gutted it out. Our guys played hard all weekend, and worked hard to salvage that final game.
“At end of the day, and at the end of the season, resilience and mental toughness is what’s going to carry us. Today, we walked off the field understanding there were things we can get better at, but also knowing that we can compete in any situation.”
In game one, the club’s traded 25 runs in a three-and-a-half hour slugfest. While Westmont was within three by the game’s conclusion, the Royals broke things open early and fended off the Warriors’ rally without much stress.
Westmont starter Bradley Heacock had no answer for the Royal’s ambush, as HIU ultimately tagged the right-hander for six runs in three innings. Heacock surrendered a run in the first, but Westmont was quick to spot him a pair in the bottom half. However, things began to unravel in the third, when Hope International launched a solo shot and a three-run homer off of Heacock to break open a 6-2 advantage.
Westmont’s bullpen did not have much success against the Royals either, as Cameron Phelps, Sam Kim, and Gabe Arteaga combined to allow an additional eight runs (six earned) during the middle innings.
Westmont’s offense did not bow down in game one, as the club ultimately scored 11 runs on 15 hits. Brady Renck and Simon Reid led the Warriors with three runs batted in each.\
Westmont’s best look of the game came in the bottom of the seventh, when a two-out rally brought Renck to the plate with runners on first and second and two outs. At the time, Westmont trailed 10-8, and a ball to the gap could have changed the game. However, Renck bounced a routine ground ball to second that was handled and tossed on to first, ending the threat.
In the eighth and ninth innings, the Royal’s added four additional insurance runs. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Renck lifted a three-run home run down the right field line, but it was too little too late for Westmont, who dropped the game 14-11.
“We made some crucial mistakes in game one, ” noted Ruiz, “and they took everything we gave them. We couldn’t get away with anything. As much as we turned things around offensively, they did the same and never let up.
In game two, Chad Stoner set the stone for the Warriors in what might have been his best start of the season. Through the first five innings, Stoner surrendered just one run on three hits, and bought Westmont time to wake the bats up.
The first time the Royals threatened Stoner was in the fourth, when a pair of singles put runners at the corner with one out. With his back against the wall, Stoner induced a pop up and a fly out to end the threat.
In the top of the fifth, HIU’s Omar Veloz hit a ball 311 feet down the left field line, which, unfortunately, for Stoner, is 310 feet from home. Unfazed, Stoner finished off the fifth, and gave Westmont a chance to turn the tide as they chased just one run.
“We talked yesterday about Osey and his ability to lead from the front,” began Ruiz, “and Chad has always been one of those guys, too. When his team needs it, Chad gives everything he has. He just understands what the day requires, and he displays great competitive leadership.
“That was one of Chad’s best starts of the season, and maybe one of his best starts in his time at Westmont.”
Westmont finally got to Hector Garcia, one of the NAIA’s best, in the bottom of the fifth.
The rally began with a one-out double from Ryan Desaegher. Then, with the Warriors’ on the railing waiting to erupt, Robbie Haw shot a ball down the left field line to bring in Desaegher and knot the game at two.
The Warriors would not stop there.
After Renck reached via hit by pitch, lightning struck for the Warriors for the second consecutive day. Reid rolled a ball to second base, and for a moment, it appeared as if the Royals had a chance to turn two. Instead, for the second time in as many days, Demitri Colacchio saw the ball trickle under his glove and into right field.
Once again, the go-ahead run came in on an error, and the Warriors led 2-1.
Thomas Rudinsky added insult to injury immediately when he served a ball to the wall in left center. Renck scored, Reid scored, and Rudinsky slid into third head first with a head full of steam. The dugout exploded, Rudinsky roared to the heavens, and Westmont led 4-1.
“Garcia was fantastic today,” assured Ruiz. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the country and probably the best arm we’ve seen all season. We knew he was going to be tough and I’m proud of the way our guys competed. Hitting is contagious, people say it all the time.”
A wild pitch scored Rudinsky, and a sacrifice fly from Justin Rodriguez put Westmont up 6-1 going into the sixth.
In the sixth, the Royals put a three spot up, highlighted by a two-run shot from Greg Lamb. After the homer, Ruiz opted to go to his bullpen ace, Carlos Moreno, who got the final out of the inning.
Westmont generated a run in the bottom half of the inning, thanks to good fortune and small ball. Finn Snyder walked, moved to second on a wild pitch, and moved to third on a long fly ball. Then, a ball snuck through the legs of Veloz behind the plate, and Snyder trotted home with a huge insurance run.
Moreno trotted back out with a 7-4 lead, needing three outs to secure a series split.
Veloz led off with a double, but Parker O’Neil did not allow a second consecutive base hit when David Morgan scorched a ball down the line. O’Neil dove to his left, stabbed the ball cleanly, and threw a short-hop that was picked by Josh Rego at first for a huge out number one.
The tension only grew when Jesse Villalobos doubled to bring in Veloz, bringing the potential tying-run to the plate. Moreno induced a soft comebacker for out number two, setting the stage for a showdown with HIU’s Chase Hanson, who came into the day with a batting average of .413.
On a 1-2 pitch, Moreno froze Hanson with a change-up on the outside corner. All Hanson could do was watch as strike three was called, and the Warriors officially held on to win it, 7-5.
“Overall, it was a good, hard-fought weekend against a very good opponent,” reflected Ruiz. “Hope does all the little things right, and you can’t get away with making any mistakes against them. For our guys to come back and leave with a split, I’m proud of them.”
The first-place Warriors return to action on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., when they host Marymount on Russ Carr field.