Game Recap By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
SANTA BARBARA – As Roy Verdejo hustled toward first base, he believed the ball would drop, maybe even kick up against the fence. He knew Aaron Shackelford possessed the speed to cover three bases before a relay could reach the plate. He watched as Westmont right fielder Austin Muller made a sprawling, full-extension catch in the gap.
Verdejo stopped, removed his helmet and tipped it in Muller’s direction, acknowledging the athleticism and body control it took to keep the Warriors ahead of The Master’s University by one in the final inning of Westmont’s 6-5 win Friday afternoon. The Warriors also won the day’s early game, 10-7, at Russ Carr Field.
“You can’t really do anything when a guy makes a play like that,” Verdejo said.
Westmont made a handful of plays that left the Mustangs with a similar feeling of frustration Friday as it snapped TMU’s 15-game winning streak and dropped the Mustangs out of first place in the Golden State Athletic Conference. The development further muddled the playoff race.
Six teams are currently within three games of first place. Five teams will make the GSAC tournament, with roughly two weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Mustangs (27-11-1, 16-8 GSAC) hadn’t lost since March 15 entering the day. They hadn’t dropped back-to-back contests in more than a month, in large part due to one of the NAIA’s most potent offenses. Master’s wasted no time presenting Exhibit A on Friday.
In the first inning of game one, Anthony Lepre hit his 23rd homer of the year, muscling a pitch that bore in on his hands over the left field fence. The blast tied him with Shackelford for the NAIA lead and for TMU’s single-season record, a mark that’s sure to change hands several times in the next few weeks. It was the 32nd time in 38 games that the Mustangs had hit at least one home run.
Lepre and Shackelford made history in the eighth inning as TMU charged back from an 8-1 deficit to provide a spoonful of drama. Master’s scored four in the eighth, two coming on back-to-back run-scoring hits from Shackelford and Lepre.
For both players, it was their 66th RBI of the year, matching the program record set by Rob Avila in 1999.
The Mustangs added a run in the ninth, forcing Westmont coach Robert Ruiz to utilize one of the NAIA’s most daunting weapons to quell the fire.
A handful of major league scouts scurried into position behind home plate as closer Bailey Reid jogged in from the bullpen, bringing with him a fastball that’s reportedly been clocked in the mid 90s.
Lepre greeted Reid with an RBI double to shallow right, driving in his record-breaking 67th run of the year to bring the Mustangs within 10-7. But Reid induced a line out from Verdejo to strand Lepre and lift Westmont to its fifth straight win over Master’s.
The Warriors (29-10, 16-10 GSAC) made it six in a row hours later when they fashioned a two-base throwing error, a sac bunt and a Tyler Roper sacrifice fly into the game-winning run in the bottom of the sixth without the benefit of a hit.
It dampened the excitement surrounding Kameron Quitno’s score-tying three-run blast in the top half of the inning.
That rally came exclusively from the bottom half of the Mustang order. Will Batz led off with a single. Nick Tuttle doubled. Then Quitno hooked a ball over the right-field fence for his fourth home run of the year, making it 10 straight games with at least one home run for TMU. Quinto drove in all five of the Mustangs’ runs in game two.
Senior Bryce Morison did most of the Warriors’ damage. A local product playing in his final regular-season series in Santa Barbara, Morison hit three home runs on the day and drove in six.
The blasts were his seventh, eighth and ninth of the year, and his first-inning homer in game one served as a stirring rebuttal to Lepre’s opening remark.
Morison drove an 0-1 pitch over the wall in right center, driving in two. It was only the beginning of trouble.
The Mustangs made two throwing errors in the second inning, helping the Warriors score four runs. Westmont led 8-1 in the fourth after Morison’s two-run blast, a drive that traveled more than 400 feet to left center.
“We hurt ourselves on the defensive end, and they capitalized on us,” Brooks said.
The sequence was reminiscent of TMU’s last trip to Santa Barbara, its final series of the 2018 regular season when the Mustangs led early in two games but had no answers for the Warriors in a three-game sweep.
Here are the box scores for the first game and the second game.
To avoid an identical fate, the Mustangs will have to refocus quickly, the teams set to meet again in Santa Barbara on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“We’re ready to bounce back in a big way and leave it all on the field,” Shackelford said. “One pitch at a time, playing loose and free.”
Asked if the Mustangs entered the series – billed as the NAIA Ball Podcast’s Big Series of the Week – overconfident, Shackelford said he believed that wasn’t the case.
“I don’t think we came in confident enough,” he said. “We played timid in the early innings of the first game and it cost us.”
Top photo by Tony Berru.