IRVINE — Anthony Lepre became sure of something as he reviewed a slow-motion replay of one of his batting practice swings Wednesday in Irvine.
“Yeah,” The Master’s University senior said, “I’m going to hit a tank today.”
An hour later, Lepre drove a ball over the right-center-field fence in OC Great Park, one of TMU’s three home runs in a 16-4 win over Westmont.
The win, which featured Aaron Shackelford’s 35th and 36th home runs, extended the Mustangs’ stay at the Golden State Athletic Conference tournament and set in motion a quick turnaround.
The Mustangs relaxed and ate dinner for 45 minutes before playing No. 1 seed William Jessup in what amounted to a GSAC semifinal.
Alas, the bats cooled. Master’s lost 11-5, leaving the team to wait until the NAIA releases its national tournament field next week.
The Mustangs (34-17-1) hope to receive an at-large berth, and they certainly have made a case, winning 32 games during the regular season and beating two NAIA Top 25 opponents here in a 24-hour span.
Master’s received votes in Tuesday’s national rankings.
“I’d like to think that we’re in,” said Shackelford, who drove in seven runs Wednesday to give him 99 RBIs for the year, an NAIA best. “I think we’re all expecting to play in a regional. So the spirits aren’t too low.”
Shackelford, who was intentionally walked seven times in the tournament, reaching base in 18 of his 22 plate appearances, moved closer to history.
The senior shortstop is two home runs shy of matching the NAIA single-season record set by Lewis-Clark State’s Beau Mills in 2007.
Wednesday’s blasts were Shackelford’s fifth and sixth in seven games against Westmont (34-14), a club that had beaten the Mustangs nine straight times entering the day.
Master’s lost to Westmont on Monday in the tournament’s opener, a tormenting, five-and-a-half-hour contest that spanned 12 innings.
The game decimated a good portion of TMU’s pitching supply and dropped it into the loser’s bracket, a punishing gauntlet that demanded a pair of Herculean pitching performances from the Mustangs.
Kyle Adkins threw a complete game Tuesday against No. 25 Arizona Christian, when Shackelford produced a walk-off two-run single in the ninth.
Then Eric Williams tossed a compete-game Wednesday against No. 22 Westmont, holding the Warriors to four runs on eight hits. He struck out seven and induced 13 ground outs.
Williams said he didn’t feel excessive pressure even though he knew the club needed him to pitch deep into the game.
“It didn’t feel like so much of a pressure thing as it was, ‘I’ve been entrusted with this job and there are eight other guys on the field, and I’m trusting them to do their jobs,'” Williams said. “I tried to treat it like as normal of a game as possible. Obviously that was in my head, but it helped me focus better and lock in.”
The Mustangs scored four runs in the first inning, Roy Verdejo’s RBI double and Kameron Quitno’s two-run triple serving as the biggest blows.
Lepre’s home run an inning later gave the Mustangs a 5-0 lead and raised the question of what exactly he’d seen during batting practice that assured him of success.
“I was watching (Atlanta Brave) Ronald Acuña Jr.’s swing on YouTube recently,” Lepre said, “and I took what he did with his hands during his load and implemented it into my swing, and it just felt really good and kept me through the ball.”
The lead ballooned to 8-0 after Shackelford clubbed a pitch over the fence in right center in the sixth. He homered to a nearly identical spot in the eighth.
“The ACU and Westmont games are games I’ll remembered forever,” Shackelford said.
In the night game, sophomore Cameron Phelps was called on to make his first career start against No. 15 William Jessup, a team that took three of four from the Mustangs during the regular season on the way to the GSAC crown.
Phelps pitched with a confidence that belied his experience, holding the Warriors to four runs over his first six innings. He received run support in the sixth when Lepre slammed a ball over the fence for his 28th homer of the year, and second of the day.
Phelps nearly lasted through the seventh, but Jordan Williams swatted a two-out offering into center for a two-run double, setting in motion a four-run surge that ended Phelps’ night.
Will Batz finished the game 2-for-4, giving him nine hits in the four tournament games.