WCC Dispatches: LMU in Driver’s Seat; BYU on BubbleAt The Ballpark
STOCKTON, Calif. — Joe Vranesh is not your typical leadoff hitter.
He’s more Brian Urlacher than Brett Gardner. The 6’2″, 200-pound Saint Mary’s outfielder takes the diamond with a football mentality, which makes sense since he played linebacker at De La Salle High, which is consistently one of the top high school football programs in the country. Vranesh had 134 tackles his final two years for the Spartans.
“I think it’s made me tougher as a player, tougher on the field and maybe I play a little looser, more athletic. I think it helps me,” Vranesh says of his football background.
Like any good linebacker, Vranesh is looking for big hits against the opposition. His focus is more on bombs than bunts. He has three times as many home runs as sacrifice bunts this season. The latest came Friday night when Vranesh crushed a three-run homer to break a tie in the seventh inning of a WCC tournament elimination game at Banner Island Ballpark.
“I was just going in looking for a fastball and luckily he left one over the plate that first pitch and took a good swing,” Vranesh said. “That one felt good. I haven’t hit many balls that felt like that.”
The no-doubt homer to the left of the batter’s eye in center field pushed Saint Mary’s past Gonzaga, 4-3, in the Friday nightcap. It also advanced the Gaels (35-21) to the championship round where they will face Loyola Marymount, who defeated Saint Mary’s in a 3-2 nail biter Friday evening.
Vranesh isn’t in the leadoff spot because he’s a speedy guy that can create havoc on the basepaths. He’s at the top of the lineup because he’s the team’s best at getting on base. Vranesh (.332, 15, 56) leads the Gaels with a .438 on-base percentage. He also leads the team in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, doubles, home runs, RBIs and hit by pitches. He is Saint Mary’s top offensive weapon.
“In big situations, he’s the guy that you want,” Gaels head coach Eric Valenzuela said. “He’s a strong, physical kid. He’s tough as nails and he got a ball up to hit and he drove it.”
Wearing Down Waldy
The Gaels looked like they might be waiting in the championship round for the winner of Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga (31-24). Early in the evening, Saint Mary’s southpaw starter Ken Waldichuk was carving up the Lions in the winner’s bracket matchup.
Waldichuk was pumping 90-93 mph fastballs, touching 94 and using a pair of breaking balls with a slider around 80 and curveball at 75 to make Loyola Marymount’s hitters look silly. He struck out the side on 11 pitches in the second inning. He stranded a runner at second base in the third. He struck out Steven Chavez and Alex Lambeau with two men on in the fourth. Waldichuk collected his ninth and 10th strikeouts in a 1-2-3 fifth inning, but this time it took 22 pitches.
Nick Sogard had led off the first inning with a seven-pitch at-bat. It was the only at-bat Waldichuk had to throw more than five pitches in the first 14 hitters he faced. But in the middle of the fourth inning, the tide began to shift. Tommy Delgado worked a full-count walk and although Chavez and Lambeau struck out, they made Waldichuk throw 11 pitches.
When Chavez came into the dugout mad at his second strikeout of the game, head coach Jason Gill pulled him aside and told him ‘Hey you have a chance to get the game-winning hit.’ It would become an almost prescient positive reinforcement.
Waldichuk’s 22-pitch fifth inning featured four foul balls with two strikes. The Lions were making him work. The two-strike fouls were a theme in the sixth inning too when the Lions were able to break through for three runs.
Brandon Shearer was down in the count 1-2, but fouled off a pitch and then worked a walk (7 pitches). Trevin Esquerra singled home Shearer, who had moved up on two balls in the dirt, after fouling away the first 3-2 pitch he saw (7 pitches). Delgado singled on an 0-2 pitch (3 pitches) before Chavez finished Waldichuk’s night with an RBI single to left field after a trio of two-strike foul balls (8 pitches). The Lions doubled their hit total against Waldichuk in the final three batters.
“Our team was pretty mentally tough today,” Gill said. “Down 2-0 with Waldichuk kind of dealing and then just coming together and saying, ‘Hey this isn’t over. We’re going to fight.’ And they fouled some pitches off and wore him down a little bit. We capitalized on some big plays and there were some big at-bats that we took.”
Waldichuk was charged with three runs and the loss as Delgado came into score on a sacrifice fly by Lambeau. The junior threw 43 pitches to the first 13 batters he faced. He threw 65 to the final 11.
“They wore him down. They got his pitch count up,” Valenzuela said. “I thought he was money early. Then they did a good job of wearing him down a little bit. They fouled a lot of balls off and made him pitch tough all day. He was mentally exhausted and physically exhausted. ”
Loyola Marymount (31-23) was in prime position to cushion its 3-2 lead the next inning. Cooper Uhl and Sogard led off with back-to-back singles. Kenny Oyama was hit by a pitch to load the bases, bringing up Shearer to face Saint Mary’s reliever Michael Hobbs.
Shearer turned on a 1-0 fastball. His liner was sinking fast as Edward Haus raced in and tried to make a sliding catch. Haus trapped the ball in his glove. First base umpire Travis Katzenmeier was all over it, immediately signaling no catch, but the Lions’ runners did not recognize what had happened.
Haus came up firing. The ball had gone right into his glove and the momentum of his slide had spun him around, but he immediately got to his feet and threw a one-hopper to the plate to get a force out, barely nipping Uhl coming down the line.
Saint Mary’s catcher JC Santini stretched out to catch the throw for the force out, but wasn’t aware the runners had all retreated. It took him a full six or seven seconds of looking around and assessing before he threw the ball. During the entire time, Gill and the LMU dugout were screaming for the runners to go. But by the time they went in motion, Santini’s throw was at third base for a force out on Sogard. Bryce Willits caught it and slung a throw to second that barely beat Oyama for the classic 9-2-5-4 triple play.
Um… we might need to watch this one again…
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) May 25, 2019
“Our baserunners weren’t aware enough to look for [the umpire] and didn’t advance,” Gill said. “One of the craziest triple plays I’ve ever seen. They’re all crazy, but that one was pretty unique, especially with the one-run game going on.”
The play was huge, keeping it a 3-2 margin when it seemed the Lions would at least get a breathing-room run.
“It’s a weird kind of a play,” Valenzuela said. “That would have opened up a big inning for them obviously. It gave us a chance. You’d hope it’d give you momentum.”
But it did not give Saint Mary’s momentum. The Gaels had to face Loyola Marymount’s biggest arm, sophomore Nick Frasso, and he made sure things were on lock.
Frasso needed nine pitches to get the top third of the Saint Mary’s lineup out in the eighth inning. The 6-foot-5 righthander was nearly unhittable, throwing three scoreless innings to send the Lions to the championship. Frasso was dotting up 94-96-mph (touching 97 on one radar gun) fastballs on the black and then uncorking a slow, but sharp 72-75 curveball that got swing and misses.
“Nick’s unbelievable and he’s been that way for us for two years now,” Gill said. “It’s a special guy. He’s real. He’s got a chance to play for 10-15 more years.”
Saint Mary’s only hit against Frasso was a ninth inning chopper over the mound that Haus beat out for an infield single. A two-out walk put the tying and go-ahead runs on base, but Frasso got a flare to first base to end the game.
Loyola Marymount’s Friday starter Codie Paiva was named the WCC Pitcher of the Year after going 6-5, 1.78 during the regular season, but Frasso might be the Lions’ most important pitcher. He’s seen a variety of roles this year, beginning the season piggybacking with Paiva before moving into the rotation and then being shifted to the bullpen a week after missing a start with some minor forearm tenderness.
In eight relief appearances since the beginning of April, Frasso has allowed two runs in 18.1 innings. He has struck out 31 batters while allowing 12 hits.
“Our team has a lot of confidence in anybody we put in the game, but when he comes in the game, because of his track record, we feel like we have a really good chance of winning,” Gill said.”He’s not going to get in his own way. He rarely hits guys and he rarely walks guys. He’s like a 1.2 to the plate, so it’s hard to run on him.
“A guy that big and he’s that athletic. He can field his spot as good as any pitcher that I’ve ever had and he’s 6-5, so you can’t bunt on him, you can’t steal on him. So you’ve got to hit and you’ve got to be able to hit 96 from 6-5. It’s pretty difficult, so yea, I think we’re pretty comfortable. He’s special. He’s going to pitch for a while.”
Hitting Frasso has not been a fun endeavor for batters. Opponents are batting .170 against him. He’s allowed 30 hits in 50 innings. His WHIP is 0.90, which would be good for 12th best in the nation, if he met the minimum inning requirement (he’s currently four innings short).
The scary thing for West Coast Conference foes? Frasso will be back next year and he’s only getting better.
“I’ve kind of learned, I guess recently, how to kind of use my body and throw with my body more,” Frasso said. “I’m just getting into my legs more. Working on balance is definitely a big thing for me.”
LMU Set Up Nicely
Gill was able to turn the ball over to Frasso for a three-inning stint because of the work Paiva did in the Lions’ tournament opener Thursday against BYU. Paiva proved his Pitcher of the Year selection by going the distance against the potent Cougars. He allowed five hits and a run while striking out a career-high 11 in a 132-pitch complete game.
On Friday, Josh Agnew pitched six solid innings for the Lions before Frasso took over. Agnew gave up an unearned run in the first inning, but settled in nicely, allowing only four hits and two runs.
“We know going in the first two innings with him are always a little bit on edge and then once he gets going, he can really locate and that sinker starts to work a little bit better,” Gill said.
Agnew picked up his sixth win and has helped give Gill and pitching coach Nathan Choate plenty of options for Saturdays championship round. The Lions will be using their third starter while Saint Mary’s is on their fourth. LMU also has the advantage of a full complement of bullpen arms outside of Frasso.
“I think it’s a big advantage for us to go in there with a fresh bullpen all the way through and a couple of fresh starters,” Gill said.
Key contributors Matt Voelker (1-4, 4.87), Giuseppe Benedetti (5-1, 2.96), CJ Fernandezees (3-1, 3.10), Kyle Mora (1-0, 3.46), Alexander Burge (3-1, 4.78), Sean Paquet (0-1, 5.26) and Josh Robins (1-0, 5.57) are all still available. All have thrown at least 20 innings this season. In comparison, Nathan Schneider (2-0, 5.71) and Kevin Milam (4-4, 5.94) are the only pitchers on Saint Mary’s side with 20+ innings that have yet to throw in the WCC tournament. Milam has been tabbed as the Gaels’ 3 pm starter.
“He’s struggled and not had the year he wanted on the mound, but this is a great opportunity for him. He’s fresh,” Valenzuela said, adding that if the Lions are going to win the championship, “They’re going to beat a good team. I feel like we’re playing good, even the game we lost, we’re still playing good, so hopefully it’s a long day of baseball tomorrow.”
Lardner Finishes Strong with Soft
Gonzaga lefthander Mac Lardner did not have the junior year he wanted to have, but he finished it strong with eight terrific innings in the tournament’s Friday afternoon game. Lardner allowed only three hits and one run while striking out seven as the Bulldogs beat BYU, 3-1, to stave off elimination for a few hours.
Danny Gelalich led off the game with a double and came around to score on a Brock Hale groundout. Gelalich added a single in the sixth inning, but Lardner stranded him and Hale, who walked, in BYU’s only true threat the rest of the game.
Lardner baffled the Cougars (36-17) with his changeup, threw three pitches for strikes and wasn’t afraid to bust hitters in on the hands with his fastball when they started leaning out looking for the changeup away. It was a continuation of what Paiva had done to the BYU lineup.
“Last night Paiva was just awesome and today Lardner was really, really good,” BYU head coach Mike Littlewood said. “They were similar in that they used the changeup more than 50 percent of the time. We just couldn’t solve it. Tough pitch to hit when guys command that.”
Alek Jacob came on to close out the game with an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth inning against the heart of the Cougars lineup, earning his 12th save. Hale grounded out to finish the tournament 0 for 6 with two walks. Jacob struck out Jackson Cluff, who was also hitless in his WCC tournament appearance.
“In a nutshell our three-four hitters didn’t show up. When they don’t hit for us, we don’t win. That kind of came to fruition the last couple nights,” Littlewood said. “We needed more production out of our three-four hitters.”
(Jacob came back five and a half hours later to start against Saint Mary’s. He allowed one run on three hits in four innings, giving the Zags a chance. Jacob struck out eight combined in his two outings.)
BYU now awaits its fate after being shut down offensively and sent home from Stockton after an 0-2 outing.
The NCAA Selection Committee will convene this weekend to decide the fate of teams that did not win their conference tournaments. When asked to make his pitch to the selection committee, Mike Littlewood said he hopes the consider more than just this weekend.
“We’ve just been a really consistent team all year long,” Littlewood said. “We’re not a team that’s going to wow anybody, but I think you put us up against anybody and we’re going to compete. Hopefully our body of work just proves that out, but it’s out of my hands.”
BYU won 36 games and the WCC regular-season title, but the question remains, is that enough? The Cougars entered the weekend at No. 36 in the RPI and a safe bet for an at-large berth, but they have slid down to No. 45 over a two-day span, dropping five spots on Friday following their 3-1 elimination loss. They lack any marquee wins, having gone 0-2 against the RPI top 50.
“The league overall is underrated,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Machtolf said when asked about the Cougars. “I think they deserve big-time consideration for their body of work all year. You get in a four-team tournament like this. We’ve been in their shoes before and it’s tough. Everybody says you’re two and out and that really ruins your resume. It certainly doesn’t help, but I think they’re deserving.”
West Coast Conference Tournament Game 3
- Danny Gelalich: 2-for-4, R, 2B
- Easton Walker: 6 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K; Loss
- Reid McLaughlin: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R
- Mac Lardner: 8 IP, 3 H, ER, BB, 7 K; Win
- Ernie Yake: 2-for-4, R, HR, RBI
- Isaac Barrera: 2-3, GWRBI
West Coast Conference Tournament Game 4
- Kevin Milam: 1-for-3, RBI, BB
- Gio Diaz: 1-for-3, R, 2B, BB
- Ken Waldichuk: 5.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R (2 ER), 2 BB, 10 K
- Nick Frasso: 3 IP, H, 0 R, BB, 4 K; Save
- Josh Agnew: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R (1 ER), BB, 2 K; Win
- Trevin Esquerra: 2-for-3, R, RBI, HBP
- Steven Chavez: 2-for-4, RBI
West Coast Conference Tournament Game 5
- Troy Johnston: 2-for-3, 2 R, HR, RBI, BB.
- Daniel Fredrickson: 2-for-4, R, 2 2B, RBI
- Alek Jacob: 4 IP, 3 H, ER, BB, 7 K
- Carlos Lomeli: 7.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R (2 ER), BB, 8 K; Win
- Joe Vranesh: 1-for-3, 2 R, HR, 3 RBI, HBP
- Kevin Milam: 1-for-3, RBI, HBP
3 p.m. PDT – Saint Mary’s (RHP Kevin Milam) vs. Loyola Marymount (RHP Owen Sharts)
***If Loyola Marymount loses the 3 p.m. game, there will be a winner-take-all rematch that is slated to begin at 7 p.m.
In Their Words
LMU head coach Jason Gill talks about the effort of pitchers Josh Agnew and Nick Frasso on the mound to help push the Lions to the championship round of the conference tournament:
Saint Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela says he is hoping for a long day of baseball in the championship round of the WCC Tournament after Gaels split a pair of games on Friday: