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Pepperdine Baseball Team Plays Tough to Catch : Colleges: Waves need to win only one of three games this weekend against Loyola to maintain their grip on first place in the West Coast Conference.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pepperdine baseball Coach Andy Lopez wasn’t feeling well this week. He had a strep throat and was under a doctor’s order not to speak to avoid throat strain.

But his team was a robust 17-4-1 as of Monday and had won 10 of 11 games. The Waves, who will play host to Loyola Marymount in a three-game series this weekend, are in first place in West Coast Conference play at 9-2, 1 1/2 games ahead of defending conference champion Loyola (10-4).

Assistant coach Steve Kling, pinch-hitting for Lopez in talking with the media, said the Waves have a strong opportunity to win the WCC title.

In this weekend’s series against the Lions, Kling said that “all we have to do is win one of three games, and we’re still in first place.”

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But he doesn’t think that Loyola has a good chance of winning two out of three at Malibu. “It’s a tough situation for them to come into,” he said. “They’ve got to play us in our yard.”

The Waves were in a tough situation last year, when they lost 10 games by one run and were runner-up to Loyola in the WCC. Despite finishing 37-23, Pepperdine wasn’t invited to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1984. This year the Waves have been involved in five one-run games and have won three of them.

In this year’s press guide, Lopez is quoted as saying that he would “never forget the looks of disappointment on our kids” faces when the tournament field was announced (last year) and Pepperdine was not included.

“I think it is safe to say that everyone on the team started to recall all of the games we had lost by one run during the course of the season,” he said. “It was tough sitting at home on Memorial Day weekend, but now the team realizes the importance of each ball game.”

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Steve Duda, a sophomore right-handed pitcher who was named to All-American freshman teams, shared most of the starting duties last year with then-senior Britt Craven. This season he is getting plenty of help from junior transfer Pat Ahearne, a right-handed starter, and a strong bullpen led by right-handed sophomore Steve Montgomery.

Last year Duda was 12-3 with a 2.93 earned-run average and this year he is 3-1 with a 4.00 ERA. Ahearne, a graduate of St. Bernard High who helped L.A. Harbor College to the state community college championship last year, is 6-1 with a 3.04 ERA.

As a long reliever, Montgomery is 4-0 with a save and a staff-leading ERA of 0.84. Other relievers who are pitching well include Derek Wallace (1-0, two saves, 1.54 ERA) and Sky Lasowitz (0-0, two saves, 2.63 ERA).

Kling said that pitching depth “is a lot better than in the past. We have guys who can come in from the pen and get the job done. Last year we were thin on pitching. Craven and Duda were the main guys.”

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This year Ahearne and Duda are the top starters and Montgomery the leading reliever on a staff that has a combined 2.99 ERA.

About Montgomery, Kling said: “Once we go to him, we haven’t had to go to anyone else. Every time he comes in he shuts the doors for at least four innings.”

The hitting has been equal to the pitching. The Wave batting average is .319, and opponents are batting only .257

Sophomore second baseman Steve Rodriguez, a freshman All-American who hit .332 last year, is batting a team-high .467. Freshman left fielder Jorge Paz is second at .361, followed by sophomore catcher Scott Melendez at .333, sophomore infielder Eric Ekdahl at .325 and sophomore first baseman Dan Melendez at .314.

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Dan Melendez was named a freshman All-American after he batted .319 with 10 home runs and knocked in 50 runs. The St. Bernard High graduate has recently raised his batting average in conference play from .260 to .390.

Kling said that he is not surprised that the Waves are doing so well.

He said that many observers may not have expected Pepperdine’s fast start “because of our youth, but our players are not surprised.” The players are merely meeting goals that were expected of them, he said.

And the best is yet to come, Kling said.

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“We haven’t even played to our capabilities yet,” he said. “We have been squeaking by as a team and haven’t consistently hit well. We’re due to get nine guys hot at one time.”


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