SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In his final home game after five seasons with the Hornets, senior center fielder David Del Grande launched a lead-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give Sacramento State a 6-5 win over North Dakota and clinch the first outright regular season WAC title for the team in program history.
"I was just trying to help my team win and off the bat I wasn't sure if it was going and once it went over I couldn't believe it happened; its something you dream of," Del Grande said. "When I saw it go out I was just jumping and I saw my teammates running out there and I can't even put into words what it was like. I've just been trying to get back on pace, and today I felt good in my last couple of at bats and it's a good way to enter the tournament."
Sacramento State (35-21, 21-6 WAC) had already clinched the top seed for the WAC Tournament but with the win on Saturday secured the regular season title. It's the second regular season WAC title for the team in the last three years but the first in program history that the team has won outright (not tied for the championship).
"That's a special way to end your career as a senior; its one of the most unbelievable moments I've ever been a part of to end a game like that and win a conference championship," head coach Reggie Christiansen said. "It was a great weekend for us because we had to play for something. You want to play that kind of baseball late and I think it's a great test for us and we're looking forward to going to the tournament."
As the top seed the Hornets receive a bye on the first day of the WAC Tournament and will play their first game in Mesa on Thursday at 7 p.m. against the lowest-seeded winner from the two games on Wednesday. Sacramento State will face either the No. 4, 5, or 6 seed in that game. Seeding will not be finalized until the rest of the WAC teams conclude conference play today and tomorrow.
Saturday's regular season finale was a much tighter contest than the first two games of the series, though the Hornets did score single runs in the each of the first three innings, including the ninth home run of the season by junior Rhys Hoskins in the third, to take an early 3-0 lead.
North Dakota (10-29, 8-16 WAC) struck for a three spot in the top of the fourth to tie the score. A leadoff Hornet error jumpstarted an inning in which UND sent nine men to the plate and scored three unearned runs to pull even, though they stranded the bases loaded. Another Hornet error enabled a fourth run to score the following inning as the visitors went ahead 4-3.
Sacramento State regained the lead in the seventh, tying the score as Del Grande led off with a double and scored on a safety-squeeze bunt from junior Scotty Burcham. Sophomore Chris Lewis then doubled to the left field gap and was brought home on an RBI single from sophomore Dane Fujinaka to give the Hornets a 5-4 lead.
In its final game of the season, North Dakota continued to battle and tied the game in the top of the ninth on a one-out solo homer from catcher Taylor Petersen off Hornet closer Sutter McLoughlin. In the bottom of the ninth UND reliever Alex Twenge fell behind Dal Grande 2-0 before the fifth-year Hornet ended his home career with the WAC-winning walk-off homer.
The top four hitters in the Hornet lineup combined to go 8-for-18 on the day, as junior Kyle Moses was 2-for-5 and sophomore Nathan Lukes was 3-for-5 in front of Hoskins and Del Grande. Petersen had one of three two-hit games recorded by North Dakota and scored twice.
Hornet redshirt freshman Justin Dillon went just 3.2 innings and allowed three runs, but all of them were unearned. Four of the five runs North Dakota scored were unearned, with the only earned run the homer off McLoughlin, who picked up his fourth win of the season but has now allowed a home run in three consecutive appearances. Twenge was the last of five UND pitchers in the game after starter Zach Muckenhirn lasted just three innings.
If the Hornets win in their opening game at the WAC Tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday, they would play again at 7 p.m. Friday and, with another win, would have the opportunity to play for the conference title at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Any loss in the double-elimination tournament makes the path to a title much more challenging.