WNC Must Win Three of Four to Host Regional
The stakes are usually high when Western Nevada College and Salt Lake meet on the baseball diamond.
That definitely will be the case on May 4-5 when the Scenic West Athletic Conference rivals conclude the regular season with a four-game series in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake (29-4) brings a one-game edge over WNC (29-6) into a series that will determine the conference champion and host of the Region XVIII Tournament May 9-12.
The 18th-rated Wildcats (40-11 overall) are seeking their third SWAC title in four years, while fifth-ranked Salt Lake (38-6) pursues its first regular-season title under coach David Nelson.
WNC will need to win three games in Salt Lake to capture its second straight conference championship for coach D.J. Whittemore.
"We can't worry about winning three games until we win two, and we can't worry about winning two until we win one," Whittemore said. "Our focus is the first game Friday."
The clubs have played a different number of conference games because two games of the Salt Lake-CSI series were canceled due to wet weather.
Both teams are surging come into the series: WNC has won seven straight and 11 of its past 12 games, while the Bruins have reeled off five consecutive victories and won 15 of their past 16 games.
Salt Lake claimed two of three games at WNC on March 30-31. The fourth game of series was snowed out and won't be rescheduled. Salt Lake beat WNC 7-5 and 4-1, but the Wildcats rebounded to win the third game behind a complete game one-hitter by Dylan Baker. The 6-foot-3 Baker struck out 10 Bruins and called it the best pitching performance of his career.
During that windy and wet series in Carson City, the teams developed some camaraderie to go along with their mutual respect for one another, filling the idle time during rain and snow delays with a playful dance-off and army games.
"It speaks a lot concerning the two programs," Nelson said. "Both programs respect each other a great deal and play hard without hatred. It is what athletics is all about."
WNC has a .304 team batting average, with nine players hitting above .300 and 11 at .297 or better. Zach Hendrix and Chris Woolley lead the way with .356 averages. Derrick Pitts has belted a team-leading nine homers and 14 doubles, and his 40 RBI are tops as well. Catcher Neil Lawhorn has become more of a power hitter since the club's last meeting and now has five homers on the season.
Braden Anderson makes the Bruins' offense go as the sophomore is hitting a robust .415 in 39 games. Anderson has nine triples, eight doubles and three homers and has scored 51 runs in 130 at-bats. Sophomore Tyson Popoff's batting average climbed to .400 after the series with Eastern Utah and is one of six Bruin regulars hitting above .300.
The multi-dimensional Pitts has also developed into one of the Wildcats' most dependable starting pitchers since Salt Lake left Carson City, compiling a 4-0 record and 1.44 ERA.
The Wildcats lowered their team ERA to 1.88 last week by holding College of Southern Idaho to 12 hits and two earned runs in their four-game series.
WNC's starting staff has modified since the three-game series in Carson City. Pitts and Brandon Jackson have joined Baker and Andrew Woeck in the Wildcats' four-man rotation.
Nelson said the new arms and improvement in the WNC starting rotation aren't causing him added concern.
"WNC's program always produces good pitching, and they continue to get better throughout the season," Nelson said. "They execute well and will be fun to face."
Jackson, a middle reliever at the outset of the season, hasn't allowed an earned run in his four starts since earning his way into the starting rotation on April 7 and now is 6-1 with a 1.48 ERA.
Woeck, who is second to Baker with 77 strikeouts, has a 7-2 mark and 1.48 ERA. Woeck allowed five hits and two earned runs in six innings while being outdueled by A.J. Carmen in a 4-1 loss to Salt Lake on March 30.
Baker is 11-0 with a 0.76 ERA, surrendering 26 hits and five earned runs in 59 1/3 innings. He has fanned a team-best 93 while walking 32.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are led on the mound by Ruddy Acosta (5-1) and Tanner Banks (10-0). The 6-6 Acosta tossed a six-inning no-hitter against College of Southern Idaho on April 21 and has crafted a 1.23 ERA, and Banks had given up just eight earned runs in 53 2/3 innings to establish a .134 ERA.
"Salt Lake has a great pitching staff, and they make it really hard to score," Whittemore said. "Until I'm told otherwise, I'm assuming they are leading the country in the fewest runs allowed per game, and that's what championship clubs do. That puts pressure on our pitching staff, and it will be a great challenge for our hitters."
Salt Lake has lost only once at home this season, but WNC has a better record away from John L. Harvey Field, winning 17 of 20 road games compared to a 15-4 mark at home. Thus, Nelson is downplaying his team's home-field advantage.
"I don't think it's that big of a deal. It will come down to who wants it more," Nelson said.
Whittemore said that playing the underdog role for the final weekend of the season suits him fine.
"I think a challenge is a good thing for this team. At times, this team has felt like they were the favorite," Whittemore said. "We feel good about our team and the way we're playing."
For those who can't attend the series, follow the games at www.ustream.tv/channel/western-nevada-baseball. Game times are at noon and 2 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday.
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