By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
McMINNVILLE, Ore. -- Eric Del Prado (Jr., 1B) smacked a grand slam home run over the center field fence and finished the game with seven RBIs to lead Willamette University to a 13-6 victory over Whitworth University in the winner's bracket game at the 2017 NWC Baseball Tournament on Saturday, April 22 at Roy Helser Field. The Bearcats improved to 28-12 on the season, while Whitworth fell to 23-14.
Del Prado went 3 for 5 on the day. He was one of eight Bearcats with at least one hit, as Willamette outhit the Pirates, 14-12. Perry Van Eckhardt (Jr., CF) also blasted a homer for the Bearcats, a solo shot in the first inning.
"Eric was huge today," Willamette Head Coach Aaron Swick said. "The grand slam was a fastball in a hitter's count, and he had a great swing. His ability to drive in runs is a reason why he hits clean-up (4th in the batting order)."
Willamette advanced into the first of a possible two championship games on Sunday, April 23 at 12 p.m. (PDT). The Bearcats, who are 2-0 in the tournament, will meet Linfield College, which defeated Whitworth University, 8-3, in an elimination game on Saturday night. Earlier on Saturday, Linfield defeated Pacific Lutheran University, 6-5, to remove the Lutes from the tournament.
If Willamette loses Sunday's first championship game, the Bearcats will play a second game against Linfield at 3 p.m. (PDT). A win in either game will give Willamette the NWC Tournament title and an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III Baseball Tournament.
"Our players are excited for the opportunity to play for a championship," Swick noted.
Each team score a run in the first inning. For Whitworth, Nicholas Nerud hit an infeld single toward third with one out, and went to second baase when the throw was wild. With two outs, Tyler Bailey drove in Nerud with a single to right. With one out in the bottom of the inning, Van Eckhardt hit his solo home run to left field. It was his team-leading seventh homer of the season.
Whitworth grabbed a 3-1 lead in the top of the third. After two outs were on the scoreboard, the Pirates recorded four consecutive hits. JT Phelan drove in the first run with a double to left center. Ryan Bird brought home the other two runs on a double down the right field line.
The Bearcats responded in the bottom of the inning by scoring five runs on five hits and two errors. Aaron Fong (Jr., 3B, Honolulu, HI/Punahou School) started the inning with a double to left center. He went to third on a sacrifice bunt by Troy Conway (Jr., 2B, Moorpark, CA/Moorpark HS). Van Eckhardt walked, and then Mason Fessler (Jr., DH/INF, Woodburn, OR/Blanchet Catholic School) hit an RBI single to left. An error in the outfield allowed Van Eckhardt to reach third on the play.
Next, Del Prado drove in Van Eckhardt on a fielders' choice that allowed Fessler to reach second on an error. After Connor Bailey (So., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) singled, Cole Pursell (So., C, Oceanside, CA/El Camino HS) hit a single to left center to drive in Fessler, but Del Prado was thrown out at home.
Cameron Igarashi (Jr., RF, Honolulu, HI/Mid-Pacific Institute) completed the rally by smacking a two-run single to center to score Bailey and Pursell. Willamette took a 6-4 lead into the fourth inning.
Each team scored twice in the fourth stanza, leaving the Bearcats with an 8-6 advantage. Garrett Hughes hit an RBI double and Matthew Nelson provided an RBI single for the Pirates. Del Prado drove in both of Willamette's runs with a single to center.
The Bearcats took charge by plating five more runs with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Fong walked, Conway singled, and Van ekchardt single to right to score Fong. Fessler was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. Del Prado launched his grand slam to center field to give the Bearcats a 13-6 lead.
"Our team has shown great resiliency all season," Swick commented. "We had two innings today (3rd and 5th) where we strung together consecutive quality at bats."
Willamette received strong relief pitching from Mason Cook (Fr., RHP, Riverton, UT/Riverton HS) and Jett Gallagher (Jr., RHP, Santa Cruz, CA/Santa Cruz HS), who combined to throw the final 5 2/3 innings. Cook, now 3-0, went 2 2/3 innings and allowed one run on two hits. Gallagher pitched the final three stanzas to earn his fifth save, and struck out two batters, while giving up one hit and one run.
"Cook and Gallagher had great outtings," Swick said. "Both mixed pitches well and filled up the strike zone to allow our defense to create outs."
Matching Del Prado with three hits for Willamette was Bailey, who finished 3 for 5 with a run scored. Fong was 2 for 3 with a double and three runs. Van Eckhardt went 2 for 2 with a homer, three runs, two walks and two RBIs.
Nelson was 3 for 5 with a double, a run and an RBI for Whitworth. Hughes went 2 for 5 with a double, one run and a pair of RBIs, while Tyler Bailey was 2 for 5 with a run and an RBI.
Willamette has won seven consecutive games. The Bearcats are 11-1 in the month of April and are 12-2 since March 26.