MESA, Ariz. – Needing to win a pair of games on Saturday to force a winner-take-all title game on Sunday, the Hornets opened the day with a 3-1 win over Bakersfield and came back just a couple of hours later to defeat Utah Valley 10-3 to advance to a championship game rematch against Utah Valley on Sunday.
Sacramento State (38-22) needed four straight victories to take the WAC title after losing its tournament opener on Thursday and beat New Mexico State on Friday before the two wins on Saturday put them in the deciding game. Utah Valley (28-29) started the tournament 3-0 but could not complete a perfect run to the championship is it came up short on Saturday evening.
"It was just a great effort by our guys," head coach Reggie Christiansen said. "We're playing well and there's a lot of momentum on our side right now so we just need to come out ready to play tomorrow. We've been in this situation before two years ago against Fresno State so we know what it's like, and I think we'll build upon that experience and these guys will be ready to go."
When the Hornets faced Fresno State in the decisive game three years ago, also in Mesa, the Bulldogs gutted out a 4-3 win in 13 innings to deny the Hornets of their first NCAA regional appearance. In that tournament the Hornets had lost to the Bulldogs the night before, while this time Christiansen's team will enter the title contest on a three-game winning streak.
Saturday's path to forcing the Sunday contest began in the afternoon against Bakersfield (26-33), the team that defeated the Hornets 4-1 in their tournament opener on Thursday. Bakersfield starter Hayden Carter and Hornet redshirt freshman Justin Dillon both pitched well, but it was the Hornets that came up with timely hits and used the long ball to secure the win.
Senior Will Soto hit the first of two Sacramento State home runs in the game with a solo shot in the second inning to put the Hornets up 1-0. Sacramento State added another run in fourth as sophomore Chris Lewis opened the inning with a double and scored on a single by Scotty Burcham. The Roadrunners got one run back on a Soloman Williams RBI single in the sixth inning but couldn't get any closer.
Hornet junior Rhys Hoskins added an insurance run with a mammoth homer to left in the top of the eighth. That was all the Hornet pitching staff needed, as Dillon allowed just the one run on six hits and one walk with three strikeouts over seven innings. After throwing 52 pitches on Friday, junior reliever Alex Palsha got the ball again and set down all six hitters he faced on just 14 pitches to earn a two-inning save.
Less than two hours after the Hornets finished off their win over the Roadrunners, freshman Jared Paderez got the start as the squad faced a rested Utah Valley team. The Hornet offense got off to a big start, scoring three runs on two hits, two walks, and two Wolverine errors in the first inning.
Kade Andrus hit a solo homer to put Utah Valley on the board in the third inning and the team scored another run in the fourth on a fielder's choice groundout. The Wolverines would score single runs over three consecutive innings, but the Hornets matched them with one run in the fourth on a Kyle Moses sacrifice fly, another in the fifth on an RBI single by Burcham, and a sixth run in the sixth inning on an RBI single from Lewis.
With a 6-3 lead freshman Chad Perry went three innings, allowing just one unearned run and one hit with two walks. Closer Sutter McLoughlin pitched a scoreless top of the eighth inning with the Sacramento State lead at three, but in the bottom of the inning Sacramento Sent eight men to the plate and scored four times on four singles, a walk, and another Utah Valley error.
Given the seven-run Hornet advantage, Christiansen opted to relieve McLoughlin with freshman Austin Ragsdale, but the freshman All-American closer stayed in the game and played first base as Ragsdale got the final three outs. Perry earned the win to improve to 3-0 this season while Utah Valley tied the WAC Tournament record with six errors in the game, allowing three unearned runs.
Lewis and Soto each had three hits against the Wolverines while senior David Del Grande and sophomore Dane Fujinaka each had two. Lewis was 4-for-7 with three RBIs and three runs on the day and Soto was 4-for-9 and also drove in three and scored three. Six Hornet pitchers combined to allow just four runs (three earned) and 12 hits over the two games for a 1.50 ERA.
Sunday's game will mark just the third time in Div. I program history that Sacramento State will play for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.