The Western Nevada College Wildcats may look back to Friday, March 14 as a pivotal point in their season. Two dramatic walk-off victories gave the Wildcats a momentum boost that inspired them to workmanlike 17-2 and 7-5 nonconference wins over Mount Hood Community College of Gresham, Ore., on Saturday in Carson City.
The four-game sweep improved WNCâ€™s overall record to 19-9 and righted the club after splitting four games the previous weekend at Colorado Northwestern.
â€œCoach (Frank) Carey had some pointed comments after yesterdayâ€™s games about just keeping our foot on the gas pedal, and that paid off in the first game, where we were able to extend the lead and save some pitching, so that we had lot of fresh arms at the end of the fourth game,â€ said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore. â€œWe have a lot of guys contributing and a lot of guys working hard to get their chance and make good on it at the end of the week.â€
WNC immediately jumped on Mount Hood starting pitcher Evans Jones in the opener, scoring four runs in its first at-bat. A sacrifice fly by Rayne Raven plated Christian Stolo for the Wildcatsâ€™ first run, then Joey Crunkilton provided more of the power hitting he demonstrated to conclude Fridayâ€™s twin bill. For the second straight plate appearance, Crunkilton went deep, sending his team-leading fourth homer of the season into the sagebrush in right field to make the score 2-0. Connor Klein and Tony Roque added a run-scoring single and RBI double, respectively, to exacerbate Jonesâ€™ rough opening frame.
The Wildcats tacked on another run in the second inning on Ravenâ€™s second sacrifice fly to move in front 5-0.
Wildcat starter Conor Harber ran into some trouble in the third inning, giving up a two-run homer to No. 9 hitter Cole Hamilton to cut WNCâ€™s lead to 5-2. Later in the inning, Harber walked consecutive hitters with two outs, but got a force at third to get out of the jam.
In the third inning, Stoloâ€™s third straight hit brought home Sam Hall, putting the Wildcats in front 6-2. Alex Fifeâ€™s sharp grounder to first with the bases loaded scored Roque, extending WNCâ€™s edge to 7-2.
The Wildcats werenâ€™t finished offensively as Raven collected his third and fourth RBI with a base hit into center field. Crunkiltonâ€™s bad-hop triple into the right-center gap sent Raven to the plate for a 10-2 WNC lead.
WNC buried the Saints in the fourth, scoring seven runs to build a 17-2 bulge. Three straight walks by reliever Chase Wiger set up the big inning. Misjudged fly balls by Saintsâ€™ outfielders compounded the problems for Wiger. On three successive balls hit into the outfield, Mount Hood came up empty. Kody Reynoldsâ€™ two-run double over the head of charging center fielder Nick Gawley scored Stolo and Corey Pool for a 16-2 WNC lead.
Harber worked four innings to earn his second win in as many decisions. The sophomore right-hander gave up four hits and two earned runs while walking two and striking out one. Dylan Hollister threw the last three innings, retiring the final seven hitters he faced. The freshman gave up one hit and struck out two.
The top of WNCâ€™s lineup lit up four Mount Hood pitchers for 14 hits. Stolo was 3 for 5 with four runs scored while knocking in two, Raven was 1 for 1 with four RBI and a run scored, and Crunkilton delivered a pair of extra-base hits and drove in three runs. Also, Hall contributed two hits, scored three runs and stole a base, and Reynolds came off the bench to smack two doubles.
â€œThe coach kept preaching to keep kicking them when you are ahead, so they donâ€™t have a chance to get back,â€ Stolo said. â€œItâ€™s a confidence booster; itâ€™s fun to get some wins before we go back into league play.â€
The lopsided victory in the opener didnâ€™t drop the Wildcatsâ€™ focus in game two. WNC erupted for a four-run second inning, triggered by a Poolâ€™s homer to right. It was the freshmanâ€™s third shot of the season.
Austin Andrews also came up big during the rally, executing a safety squeeze bunt to score Hall. Jake Bennett collected the third RBI of the inning with a two-out single to right to score Reynolds. The Wildcats used some heady baserunning to steal a fourth run. With Wildcats on first and third, Whittemore sent both runners and Bennett touched home plate before Fife was tagged out.
The Saints were unable to capitalize against Raven in the first three innings. Mount Hood left runners on second and third bases in the first and second innings and a runner at second in the third.
Three scoreless innings and the win give Raven (3-2) something to build on.
â€œI asked if I could start to see if I could work through some stuff,â€ Raven said. â€œIâ€™ve been working on a lot of different stuff in bullpen (sessions), and I think Iâ€™m going to have a lot of confidence coming out from getting the start and feeling good.â€
The Wildcats extended their lead to 7-0 in the third frame. Poolâ€™s groundout allowed Harber to score from third, and Hall blasted a two-run homer to right, his first roundtripper in a Wildcatsâ€™ uniform.
Mount Hood made it interesting by scoring twice in the fifth and sixth innings, but the Saints could have been closer if not for leaving at least two runners on base in all but the third inning.
And when the Saints put their first two hitters on base against reliever Thomas Kerr in the seventh, a once-commanding Wildcat lead became shaky.
However, the Wildcats called on freshman Connor Zwetsch, an Oregonian of course, to extinguish the Oregonâ€™ teamâ€™s comeback bid. Hamilton, who had hits in his previous three at-bats, flew out to center for the first out in the seventh. After a double steal moved the Saints up a base, Zwetsch struck out Clark Bryant looking. Kody Matthews was hit by a pitch on a two-strike count, filling the bases, then Mike Travers scored on a passed ball, pulling the Saints to within 7-5.
It looked like the Saints would tie it when Jake Dahlberg hit a grounder to the right side that first baseman Pool missed while diving to his right, but Klein got behind the ball and was able to field it and throw to first, where Zwetsch was covering for the final out.
â€œThat play to end the game is not an easy play for the second baseman or the pitcher, so good job for both of them,â€ Whittemore said.
Zwetsch earned the save, a day after picking up his second victory of the season.
â€œHe knows all of those guys. He moved away from home to come play in our program, so for him to get that final out was a big deal,â€ Whittemore said.
Zwetsch said heâ€™s only reciprocating for his coaching continuing to send him out to the mound.
â€œIâ€™ve been kind of struggling lately, but people have kept their confidence in me, and I come out and try to do what I can,â€ he said.
Raven said having Zwetsch step up to stabilize the bullpen can only help the team moving forward.
â€œThatâ€™s huge to see a young guy be able to do that and gives the team a lot more confidence in him, too,â€ Raven said. â€œWe can rally around him, and if he can keep doing that, heâ€™s going to be solid.â€
WNC will try to improve upon its third-place standing in the Scenic West Athletic Conference when it travels to College of Southern Nevada for four games starting Friday.
â€œUnfortunately, losing makes it easier to get better. We probably improved more rapidly this week because we lost last weekend (to Colorado Northwestern),â€ Whittemore said. â€œThis gets us on the right note for going to Vegas, and thatâ€™s going to be an exciting series for us. Weâ€™ve got to make a move, and this gives us a little momentum to do that.â€