Point Loma Nazarene University's baseball team has been to plenty of NAIA World Series. But, the Sea Lions have never made it to the NCAA College World Series.
They're one win from changing that.
PLNU played its first Super-Regional game in program history and beat Azusa Pacific 8-7 in a wild Game 1 at America's Most Scenic Ballpark. Starting pitcher Baxter Halligan was fantastic. He allowed a home run to Will Stroud in the 1st inning, then set down 20 consecutive APU batters. Halligan finished with 10 strikeouts to break the Pac West Conference single-season punchout record.
The left-hander lowered his season ERA to 2.25 and, as he's done every start this year, gave his club a chance to win.
"Baxter was Baxter. He was outstanding," says PLNU head coach Justin James. "He pounded the strike zone, and he was just tough. He's one of the toughest guys on the mound I've ever had."
The Sea Lions had a big 5th inning. With the game tied 1-1 they used six hits and a beautifully-executed safety squeeze to score five runs and take a 6-1 lead against Cougars starter A.J. Woodall. PLNU got another run in the 7th when Jakob Christian detonated a solo homer into the onshore breeze for a 7-1 advantage.
That's when things got nutty.
Azusa's bats suddenly woke up in the top of the 8th (after Halligan was removed). The Cougars hit three home runs in the inning, the last one a 2-run blast by Tido Robles to right field, to tie it up 7-7. The Cougars had all the momentum on their side ... until they didn't.
In the bottom of the 8th Hayden Merda walked Kemp. That was the opening the Sea Lions needed. Scott Anderson singled and Kemp went 1st to 3rd, part of a fabulous baserunning day for PLNU. That brought up Halligan.
He's a pretty good hitter, too.
The Shohei Ohtani of college baseball dropped a double down the left field line to score Kemp and give PLNU the lead back. This time they didn't let it get away, although closer Cole Hillier made it interesting.
A hit, a hit batter, and an intentional walk loaded the bases with one out. Jeffrey Castillo hit a pop-up to shallow right field and it looked like 2nd baseman Jason Dumont was settled under it but he tripped on the outfield grass. Luckily right fielder Seth Ryberg never gave up on the play. He ran up to make the catch and fire the ball back to the infield, preventing the runner at 3rd from tagging up.
Hillier got the next hitter to fly out lazily to left field for his 15th save, putting the Sea Lions on the doorstep of history. Point Loma has two chances to beat the Cougars on Saturday. Just one win will send them to the Division-II College World Series. First pitch for Game 2 is set for 11:00 am. If necessary, Game 3 would start shortly after that one.