On The Rise: Grand Canyon, Pepperdine, Dayton Among Opening Weekend Standouts

Image credit: Grand Canyon righthander Kade Mechals (Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon)

Grand Canyon Starts Strong

Grand Canyon in short order since joining Division I in 2014 has become a consistent contender in the Western Athletic Conference. The Antelopes entered this spring as one of the conference’s favorites, with a chance to win the regular-season title for the third time in four years, and the expectation that it would continue its course of building a mid-major power in Phoenix. 

But starting the season with a series win against Oklahoma State, which was ranked ranked No. 16 in the Preseason Top 25 To an outsider, that seemed unlikely, even at home. 

And yet, there they were Sunday afternoon, polishing off a relatively routine 9-3 win to capture the series. Taken with a 10-3 win on Friday and a narrow 6-4 loss on Saturday, the Antelopes came out of those three games with a plus-11 run differential. 

“We expect to win every series,” coach Andy Stankiewicz said. “It wouldn’t be fair to these young men who have worked their tails off all fall to expect anything less. I thought we did a nice job over the weekend of putting good at-bats together and having situations where our guys pitched well and really competed and made some big pitches when they had to.”

That it wasn’t just a matter of Grand Canyon pitchers taking advantage of Oklahoma State’s offense coming out of the gate cold or the hitters feasting on arms that aren’t quite ready for prime time speaks volumes. They just simply outplayed the Cowboys in all facets over the course of three days.

It starts with what the Lopes were able to do offensively, particularly early in games. On Friday, they had a 7-1 lead by the end of the third inning, and on Sunday, it was a 5-0 advantage after three. Even on Saturday, when they weren’t able to score runs in that same way, they pushed one across in the first inning. 

What they did offensively was made all the more impressive by the fact that they were mostly without their best hitter, Cuba Bess, who is nursing a hamstring injury. The first baseman hit .341 with 11 homers a season ago, but against Oklahoma State, he was limited to just two plate appearances, albeit effective ones, as he singled and walked on Saturday. 

These weren’t underwhelming arms they were doing damage against, either. On Friday, the first five runs of the game came off freshman righthander Bryce Osmond, a top-50 prospect in last year’s draft who was up to 97 mph. The first five runs in Sunday’s game came off Justin Campbell, a 19th-round selection in the 2019 draft. 

Oklahoma State did throw five freshmen over the course of the weekend, and maybe there is something to those guys not quite being ready for the moment, but either way, these were not ordinary freshmen and GCU still had to execute its approach as the Oklahoma State pitchers struggled with command. 

“You just have to be patient,” Stankiewicz said. “That was where our maturity came in, too. We had some older guys (in the lineup) and they kind of understand that and saw that. They were able to kind of just wait it out and then when they got one they liked, they let it go.”

The trick to pitching well against Oklahoma State is to limit the huge innings. You can deal with giving up a run here or there, so long as you avoid a barrage of three-run homers. 

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the one homer the Lopes allowed, a three-run shot to Alix Garcia, came in the Saturday loss. Otherwise, there were no innings of more than two runs allowed all weekend. 

RIghthander Kade Mechals, a favorite to be named the WAC’s pitcher of the year at the end of the season, turned in the best start of the weekend, throwing five innings with three hits and one run allowed to go with eight strikeouts. 

But as much as anything else, it was the length the starting pitchers gave the Lopes and their ability to limit damage that set them up to have success. Each starter threw at least five innings, with Saturday starter Pierson Ohl throwing 7.2 innings and Dawson McCarville tossing 5.2 on Sunday, and only once, the inning that featured Garcia’s three-run homer off Ohl, did OSU put up a crooked number with a GCU starter on the mound. 

“We did a nice job. Mechals, on Friday, just battled like he always does,” Stankiewicz said. “Pierson Ohl, he gave up a big home run to Garcia, who stretched it (the lead) out a little bit, but for the most part, I thought he pitched a really good game. McCarville, another (junior college) guy on Sunday, did a really good job of staying down in the zone and letting his defense work for him. That’s got to be our calling card. We’ve got to pitch really well, pitch to the strike zone, we’ve got to play really good defense.”

This won’t be the last big non-conference test for Grand Canyon this season, as Stankiewicz and his staff scheduled an aggressive slate for their team. 

At the end of February, the Lopes go to Stanford for a three-game series. On March 10 and 11, they have a pair of midweek games at Arkansas before they go to Waco to play three games against Baylor. 

“It’s a challenge. That’s something we want,” Stankiewicz said. 

Now, with this series win under their belts, we know they’re up for it.

Pepperdine Caps Perfect Weekend with Dramatic Victory

Cal Poly took the headlines with a 2-1 showing at the MLB 4 Tournament at Salt River Fields in Talking Stick, Ariz., the premier tournament of Opening Weekend. But not to be overlooked was Pepperdine’s performance 16 miles down the road at the Angels College Classic.

The Waves went 3-0 in the tournament, collecting a 5-4 win against San Diego, an 8-6 victory against Minnesota and an 8-5 win against Oregon in the finale. The first two games involved Pepperdine getting out to early leads and holding on, but Sunday’s wild affair was just the opposite. The Waves needed a comeback Sunday and scored four runs in the ninth to finish the job, highlighted by senior third baseman Aharon Modlin’s two-run home run to give them the lead.

With Tempe Diablo Stadium’s cavernous dimensions, Modlin’s was certainly no cheap home run. In more ways than one, it was a big swing for a veteran player who has been a key contributor all four years.

“That’s why he’s hitting third in our lineup,” coach Rick Hirtensteiner said. “It happened at the best time, in the top of the ninth, runner on. He got a pitch down the middle and took a good swing on it.”

Modlin, who went 6-for-12 over the weekend, is part of an exciting core of position players that will, at the very least, give the Waves a formidable heart of the order. 

That includes shortstop Wyatt Young, who is coming off of a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, and Cook, who was off to a strong start in 2019 before injury ended his season prematurely. 

“He’s an athlete,” Hirtensteiner said of Cook. “He’s our best athlete, and he’s strong. Didn’t have a very good Friday or Saturday, but he’s very resilient and works hard and came out today (Sunday) and had a very good day.”

The key offensively for Pepperdine will be lineup depth and getting contributions beyond the top handful of players, especially once they begin play in a pitching-heavy West Coast Conference. 

“We need to get more production out of the bottom of the lineup if we want to be really, really good,” Hirtensteiner said. “I think the top guys were tremendous, the bottom guys were pretty good at working counts and being tough outs, but I think we might need a little bit more out of them before we can be a really, really solid team.”

But the heart and soul of this Pepperdine team, if it’s going to be one that challenges to win the WCC, is starting pitching, and that’s what they got each of the first two days of the weekend.

In Friday’s win over San Diego, righthander Wil Jensen threw five innings, giving up three hits and two runs. Then, in the win over Minnesota on Saturday, it was righthander Cooper Chandler’s turn. He threw five innings as well, giving up five hits and two runs, just one of which was earned. 

And while righthander Trevor Kniskern didn’t have his best day against Oregon, giving up those five runs in 3.1 innings, his track record suggests he’ll have much better days. Last season, he had a 2.42 ERA in 44.2 innings. 

“Two out of the three days, Friday and Saturday, we got really good starting pitching, and I think that’s our strength,” Hirtensteiner said.

We’ll learn a lot more about Pepperdine as they continue through their non-conference slate, which includes a home series against Michigan in a few weeks, but consider its first major test passed. 

Led by Tirotta and Wolfe, Dayton Flies to 3-1 Start

Led by third baseman Riley Tirotta, a dynamic athlete who is garnering significant draft interest, and senior starting pitcher Hunter Wolfe, Dayton’s most effective starter in 2019, there was a lot of confidence that the Flyers’ would be in the mix at the top of the Atlantic 10 Conference once again. 

Over the weekend, UD looked the part, going 3-1 in a tournament at UNC Wilmington with two wins over Bryant one against the host Seahawks. 

Senior righthander Cole Pletka (6.1 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 10 K) and sophomore righty Dylan Keller (6.2 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K) turned in impressive starts in the 5-3 win over Bryant and the finale against UNCW, respectively, but it was Wolfe who really set the tone for the entire weekend. 

On Friday against Bryant, the lefty limited the Bulldogs to one run on two hits and two walks with 14 strikeouts, eight of which came against the first eight batters he faced. 

“He’s ultra competitive. You talk about the Friday guy that you would want, he epitomizes that,” Dayton coach Jayson King said. “For him to come out of the gate striking out the first eight guys, that gives the team a little added incentive to keep going.”

Tirotta, too, played a key role. He went 2-for-3 with two walks in the opener and finished the weekend 6-for-18 with two stolen bases. But he was just one part of a Dayton lineup that performed pretty well, hitting .298/.394/.397 as a team. 

Second baseman Mariano Ricciardi (8-for-17), DH Marcos Pujols (5-for-14), outfielder Jared Howell (6-for-17) and shortstop Benjamin Blackwell (6-for-19) were all catalysts throughout the weekend. That type of support is crucial if Tirotta is going to have the type of season he is capable of having. 

“(Tirotta) should never have to feel like he needs to carry the team because he’s got all sorts of good hitters around him,” King said. “It all functions well together because there’s different kinds of hitters mixed in through there. I think when it’s like that, not one particular pitcher or one particular pitch can get the whole lineup out.”

Tournaments like the one in Wilmington are a good test of depth. To play well over the course of four days, you can’t just lean on one or two hitters to stay hot all weekend, and one good pitching performance will only get you through 25 percent of the games you’re going to play. 

In this setting, Dayton got a good look at its depth, and that bodes well for later on down the line, when they will be playing in a similar situation at the A-10 Tournament, and if they can get there, a regional. 

“With the pitching, to have to cover those innings in a short amount of time, you’re going to get some guys in there that you might not in a three game series. I think that’s valuable,” King said. “All around, running a similar lineup out for four games in three days, I think it gets those guys ready physically and mentally, what that’s going to feel like.”

King, like all coaches this time of year, is focused on continual improvement moving forward. 

“It was a really good barometer of where we’re at,” King said. “Obviously we’re nowhere near where we’re going to get to. I think our focus is just getting better on a daily and weekly basis, and I think, hopefully that will lead to where we all want to get to.”

If the weekend really was a good barometer of where his team is, it’s very good news for the Flyers.

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