(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)
BILLINGS – AJ Wagenmann sent the Montana State University Billings baseball team into the postseason on Thursday evening at Dehler Park, crushing a walk-off home run to the deepest part of the yard to give the Yellowjackets a Great Northwest Athletic Conference doubleheader sweep of Central Washington University.
“I was just sitting fastball,” Wagenmann said on his walk-off at-bat. “I knew I was going to get a hittable pitch, so I just tried to put a good swing on it and it ended up in my favor.”
Wagenmann’s fourth home run of the year broke an eighth-inning tie in Game 2 of the doubleheader, giving the ‘Jackets a 12-11 triumph in a rollercoaster nightcap. MSUB used the 14th career victory from senior ace Dylan Barkley to claim Game 1 on Thursday 7-4, and improved to 24-24 on the year with a 15-15 record in conference play. “I have been extremely blessed these last five years to call this place home, and today I just wanted to make sure I left it all out there,” said Barkley after his final career start in his home ballpark. “For us to pick up two was definitely my biggest focus, but it was definitely an emotional day for me.”
MSUB moved two games clear of Saint Martin’s University for the third and final playoff spot. Even if the Saints win their final two games and the ‘Jackets lose their final two – resulting in a tie in the standings – MSUB holds the tiebreaker by virtue of winning 5 of 8 regular-season games over the Saints. “It’s not always pretty when we do it, but wins are wins,” MSUB head coach Derek Waddoups said after locking up his first-career postseason berth as a skipper. “I’m just excited for the group to get into the postseason, and anything can happen. We have been resilient all year, with comebacks and having to fight after bad days of baseball. To do this on Day 1 is just really awesome, and now we will celebrate our seniors tomorrow.”
Justin Lutz crushed his first home run of the year over the hitter’s eye in center field, and Tyler Godfrey hit his third of the year as all three home runs by the ‘Jackets came in Game 2. Hayden Foltz was 4-for-9 with four RBIs and four runs scored, and James Anderson reached base in 7 of 10 plate appearances including three walks to push his season total to 36.
Central Washington fell to 13-34 on the year and is now 7-23 in conference play with Thursday’s losses. Tyler McLain was 5-for-10 with six RBIs to lead the Wildcats offensively, and Adam Fahsel hit his seventh home run of the season for CWU.
Game 1 – MSU Billings 7, Central Washington 4
Doubles by Foltz, Carson Green, and Cooper Dulich helped the Yellowjackets score three runs in the bottom of the first inning, and MSUB never trailed after that as they used Barkley’s quality outing to secure the victory. The senior left-hander allowed three runs on 10 hits, while striking out eight and issuing two walks in his six innings of work. “It wasn’t my best stuff, but I knew I had to grind because at this point nothing else matters,” Barkley said. “It’s win or go home from here on out, so we are just here to win.”
Blake Rainey bridged the gap with one run allowed on one hit in 1 2/3 innings of work, before Tyler Elliott collected his third save of the year by retiring all four hitters he faced with a pair of strikeouts over the final 1 1/3 innings.
Mitch Winter delivered a key, two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the third inning, which upped the Yellowjackets’ lead to 5-1. The Wildcats got a run back on a Drew Richardson RBI-single in the fourth, but the ‘Jackets completed their scoring with a two-run fifth which proved to be enough to seal the win. Anderson had a sacrifice fly in the frame, before PJ Ausmus drew a bases-loaded walk to make the score 7-2.
Barkley negotiated out of trouble in the top of the sixth, completing his outing by stranding runners on second and third and limiting the Wildcats to a single run. “It feels fantastic,” Barkley said on the team’s return to the GNAC Championships. “Last time we were there it was magical, and hopefully we can repeat that magic again this year. I’m excited for where we are at, and I think this group is going to do some damage.”
“He has been huge for the program,” Waddoups commented on Barkley, who earned the win as a freshman in MSUB’s tournament-clinching victory at the 2019 championships. “He’s on the leaderboard in a lot of different categories, has been a rotation arm for a long time, and has been our Number 1 all year. That is a good offense, and they can really hit. He kept them off-balance, kept us in it, and gave us a chance to win.”
CWU managed to bring the tying run to the plate by loading the bases in the eighth inning with one out, but Elliott rescued the ‘Jackets from the jam by getting the dangerous Austin Ohland to pop out to end the inning.
CWU starter Beau Kearsey allowed five runs on seven hits with two strikeouts and a walk in his 3 1/3 innings of work, before five different relievers combined to finish the game out of the bullpen. Jacob Goudzwaard, Josh Touhey, and Jake Conners teamed up to hold MSUB without a hit over the final 3 2/3 frames of the ballgame.
Game 2 – MSU Billings 12, Central Washington 11 (8 Innings)
After rallying from a 4-0 deficit to take a 9-5 lead, the Yellowjackets imploded in the top of the seventh as the Wildcats nearly swiped the victory. McLain’s second three-run home run of the game capped a five-run seventh, that pushed CWU back ahead 11-9.
The stunned Yellowjackets responded by scoring twice in the bottom of the seventh to stay alive, with Foltz delivering another RBI-double and Dulich drawing a bases-loaded walk to even the score at 11-11.
After Jackson Betancourt stranded the go-ahead run at second in the top of the eighth, Wagenmann crushed the first pitch he saw from Richardson over the wall in left-center to give MSUB its first extra-inning victory of the season. “It was very emotional, and this team just fights no matter what,” Wagenmann said. “We are just never out of a game.”
“I couldn’t be happier for the guy,” Waddoups said on Wagenmann. “The guy works his tail off and he is just a good dude. He ran into one, and got it at the right time.”
The Wildcats jumped on MSUB starter Matthew Houlihan, with Fahsel’s solo home run coming in the first and McLain delivering a three-run shot in the third to make the score 4-0. The right-hander managed to get through four innings, surrendering four runs on six hits with five strikeouts and four walks.
Momentum shifted in the bottom of the fourth inning, when the Yellowjackets scored five times to take their first lead of the game. Godfrey ripped a two-run homer over the fence in right, before Foltz smoked a two-run triple into the right-field corner and came home to score on an ensuing error on the same play.
MSUB reliever Sage Wayment did well to limit the Wildcats in the top of the fifth, highlighted by a heads-up throw to third base to cut down the would-be tying run on a sacrifice bunt attempt. Wayment got the ‘Jackets within an out of the win in regulation, allowing three runs on six this with a strikeout and no walks in 2 2/3 innings pitched.
The ‘Jackets backed up their big fourth inning with another statement in the fifth, this time coming on Lutz’s long home run to straightaway center field. The three-run blast made the score 9-5, and advantage the ‘Jackets took all the way down to the final strike in the seventh inning. “That was a bomb, and it was when we needed it,” Waddoups said on Lutz’s first home run of the year. “It got us back into the game and it really energized the group. From then on, the belief was back that we were going to win.”
With two outs and the score at 9-6, Elliott was summoned to the game and struck out leadoff hitter Zach Berryman. The third strike got away from Wagenmann however, and Berryman reached as the Wildcats narrowly avoided the defeat. After a walk and a two-run single by Ohland, McLain turned around on an inside pitch to complete the five-run rally and give CWU an improbable 11-9 lead.
Richardson took the loss among a cast of five CWU pitchers, allowing one run on two hits with two strikeouts and two walks. The right-hander did well to get the game to extra innings, getting out of a bases-loaded jam with one out in the bottom of the seventh to keep the score tied. Wildcat starter Ryan Arredondo gave up five runs on four hits with two strikeouts and three walks in 3 2/3 innings of work.
Senior Day is Friday at Dehler Park, with the ceremony to honor the team’s seven graduating players scheduled to begin at 11:40 a.m. in advance of a noon first pitch. Live coverage for Friday’s doubleheader will be available online here. [msubsports.com]