The unusual setup of the West Coast Athletic Conference baseball schedule has provided this delicious ending to a tasty season: First-place Pepperdine and second-place Loyola Marymount, separated by a game and a half, will complete the regular season with a four-game series at Loyola.
Lurking in third place only a game behind Loyola and angling for a possible playoff berth is Santa Clara, which plays a four-game set against last-place San Francisco.
Pepperdine's recent surge and Loyola's pitching woes over the last several weeks have combined with the WCAC's unusual scheduling format--in which teams see each other once, for a four-game weekend series--to produce a stirring race between the neighboring rivals for the league title and automatic bid to the NCAA regionals.
Two weeks ago, Loyola appeared to be a lock, cruising through the WCAC at 15-0. But the Lions lost four consecutive WCAC games including three straight last weekend at Santa Clara before salvaging the fourth
The Lions, rated in the nation's top six for most of the season, tumbled to 12th and 19th in the polls this week. They're 44-14 overall and 16-4 in the WCAC. Pepperdine has crept into the Top 20 by surging to a 17-2-1 record in the conference. The Waves are 32-20-1 overall.
The mission for each is clear: Pepperdine needs at least a split to win the title. Loyola has to win at least three. It should make for some hard-fought baseball in Loyola's Page Stadium.
Lions Coach Dave Snow is not happy about Loyola's recent stumble, but even he admits, "It's what it's all about, to come down to a dogfight."
Loyola's power gives the Lions an offensive edge, but Pepperdine's pitching and defense have carried the Waves to first place. The Lions are battering the ball at a .402 pace in conference, but Santa Clara's solid pitching showed that the Lions can be contained. Loyola's pitching, meanwhile, has a 5.75 earned-run average in the WCAC, and sophomore Steve Surico, the staff ace until he suffered a back injury a few weeks ago, had been battered twice before pitching three shutout innings Wednesday in a 10-0 win over Cal State Long Beach. That improved his record to 10-2 despite an ERA of over 5.00.
Snow will probably open Friday with freshman Mike McNary, also 9-2 and Loyola's steadiest starter lately. Scott Neill (4-3, 4.22) and Mike Jones (6-2, 6.53) will start in Saturday's double-header, with Surico going Sunday.
Pepperdine, with a staff ERA of 3.94, will counter with a probable rotation of Doug Simons (8-2, 2.58), freshman Dennis Burbank (9-1, 3.30), Britt Craven (5-2, 5.33) and Pat Dubar (1-5, 8.20).
The Waves started the season with a relatively new team, lost pitchers Craig Stiveson and Wayne Helm to injuries and had trouble scoring, but they have jelled over the last six weeks, according to Coach Dave Gorrie.
Gorrie characterized the Waves' improvement as a team effort, but singled out catcher Mike Truschke and shortstop Chris Martin, both sophomores. "Truschke's given us a lot of improved play," he said. Martin leads the team with a .327 average. First baseman Scott Shockey is the top slugger with eight home runs and 49 runs batted in. All-conference outfielder Rick Hirtensteiner has been out with mononucleosis but should be in the lineup. He is hitting .317 with 37 RBI.
The story for the Waves, however, has been the pitching combo of Simons and Burbank. Simons was 11-4 last year, but the freshman Burbank, who opened the season in the bullpen, has been a surprise. Loyola's sluggers continue to batter the ball. Don Sparks and Brian Turang have 60 RBI apiece and combine for 20 homers. Loyola has hit 55 out of the park compared to 34 for Pepperdine. Travis Tarchione has 59 RBI. Sparks, catcher Mark Grafitti, Tarchione, Turang and infielder Carl Fraticelli are hitting .350 or better.
Snow was impressed when his team came back to beat Santa Clara, 16-12, Sunday after losing three tough games. "We won a game we had to win."
With Loyola's outstanding record, the Lions probably will be selected to the NCAAs even if they finish second. But Snow doesn't want to count on that. His team was snubbed last year when it won more games than several teams that were chosen but finished third in the WCAC.