By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications, (503) 370-6110
SALEM, Ore. -- A successful regular season with a 26-12 overall record and an 18-6 record in conference play has earned the Willamette University Bearcats a berth in the Northwest Conference Baseball Tournament this weekend at Roy Helser Field in McMinnville, Oregon. It is a double-elimination tournament. The winner of the tournament will receive the NWC's automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Division III Baseball Championship.
Also competing for the NWC title are Linfield College (24-10, 19-5 NWC), Pacific Lutheran University (22-10, 17-7 NWC) and Whitworth University (22-13, 12-12 NWC).
Willamette, seeded #2, will open the NWC Tournament on Friday, April 21 against #3-seeded Pacific Lutheran. Game time is set for 5 p.m. (PDT). Earlier on Friday, host Linfield, seeded #1, will take on #4-seeded Whitworth at 2 p.m.
The losing teams on Friday will play at 12 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday. Friday's winning teams will meet at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The winner of Saturday's first game and the loser from the second game will play at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Two teams will remain after Saturday's trio of games. They will meet on Sunday at 12 p.m. (PDT). If the previously undefeated team loses, there will be a second game at 3 p.m. to determine the champion.
Willamette enters the tournament with a balanced offensive attack and a solid pitching staff that has three players with five or more wins. WU also has an outstanding .967 team fielding percentage on defense. The Bearcats have excelled in close games, earning an 11-2 record in NWC games decided by one run, including 3-1 in extra-innings.
On offense, Connor Bailey (So., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) leads the way with a .333 batting average. He ranks first on the team with nine doubles and three triples. He is second with 27 runs, 25 RBIs, a .546 slugging percentage, and a .422 on-base percentage. Bailey is tied for second with five home runs and 21 walks.
Perry Van Eckhardt (Jr., CF, El Cerrito, CA/El Cerrito HS) follows with a .309 batting average and a team-leading six home runs. He also has six doubles and tops the squad with a .564 slugging percentage. He is 16 of 16 on stolen bases. Van Eckhardt has crossed the plate with 22 runs and has registered 20 RBIs. He has made numerous great plays in center field. On three occasions, he has supplied the Bearcats with a game-winning RBI in the ninth inning.
Tyler Esquivel (Jr., OF/P, Filmore, CA/Filmore HS) at .308 and Cole Pursell (So., C, Oceanside, CA/El Camino HS) at .303 also have been hitting above the .300 mark. Esquivel has played in 23 games with 19 starts, while Pursell has seen action in 22 games with 20 starts. Pursell hit a solo home run in the bottom of the 14th inning against Whitman College at Roy Helser Field on March 11.
Other key hitters for the Bearcats are Troy Conway (Jr., 2B, Moorpark, CA/Moorpark HS), Eric Del Prado (Jr., 1B, El Segundo, CA/Loyola HS) and Mason Fessler (Jr., DH/INF, Woodburn, OR/Blanchet Catholic School).
Conway is hitting .295 and leads the Bearcats with 31 runs scored. He also has driven in 22 runs, while pounding seven doubles, two triples and four homers.
Del Prado owns a .292 batting average with 22 runs and 23 RBIs. He ranks second on the team with eight doubles.
Fessler is batting .291 and ranks first for the Bearcats with 27 RBIs. He has hit four doubles and is tied for the team lead with five home runs. He leads WU and the NWC with 28 walks.
Starting pitcher Matt Steindorf (So., RHP, Granite Bay, CA/Granite Bay HS) is 7-2 on the season with a 3.87 earned run average and 54 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings. He is first in the NWC in wins and innings pitched, and is tied for fifth in strikeouts.
Benjamin Whitten (Fr., RHP, Danville, CA/San Ramon Valley HS) is 5-1 for the Bearcats with a 4.35 ERA. He has thrown 51 2/3 innings. Brandon Nelson (So., RHP, Murrieta, CA/Vista Murrieta HS) has pitched two complete-game shutouts. He is 3-3 with a 3.29 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings.
Relief pitcher Jett Gallagher (Jr., RHP, Santa Cruz, CA/Santa Cruz HS) owns a 3.86 ERA to go with a 5-1 record and four saves. He has struck out 18 batters, while pitching 30 1/3 innings in 14 appearances. All five of his wins are have been in conference play -- against five different teams.
Other top relievers are Dylan Ross (Fr., RHP, Malibu, CA/ Malibu HS) with a 1.29 ERA, Dawson Campos (Fr., RHP, Reno, NV/Galena HS) with a 1.88 ERA, and Dawson Enright, with a 3.12 ERA. Willamette has a 4.33 team ERA, while the Bearcats' opponents have recorded a 4.58 team ERA.
This spring, Willamette has achieved its most wins since going 29-16 and winning the NWC championship at 18-6 in 2001. The Bearcats have won at least 20 games in eight of the past 10 seasons. Willamette has put together four consecutive winning seasons and has earned a winning record in five of the last seven years.