PHOENIX, Ariz. --- In perhaps the biggest game of the season to date, California Baptist University turned to its ace, and the reigning Pacific West Conference Pitcher of the Year delivered.
Jon Bengard has been a workhorse all season long, leading the PacWest in innings pitched (81.2), wins (9) and strikeouts (85), and tonight he made as strong of a case as he has all season that he still is the best pitcher in the PacWest.
Bengard (9-0) struck out a career-high 11 batters and racked up his third complete-game of the year, dominating conference-leading and No. 15-ranked Grand Canyon 5-1 Thursday night in the opening game of a massive PacWest series that could give the victor a leg up in the race for the conference title.
“Jon and I met Monday and I told him it was his game all the way and we weren’t going to use the bullpen,” said Head Coach Gary Adcock. “He pitched like the reigning conference pitcher of the year and refused to give in to situations and made good pitches when he needed to.”
No pitch was bigger than the one he unfurled in a 3-2 count to end the seventh inning with a strike out of All-PacWest Derek Mendoza with the bases loaded and the Lancers clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Six of his 11 strikeouts came in the final three innings.
Both teams had just six hits, but the Lancers (27-12, 20-5 PacWest) took advantage of theirs, hitting four doubles and a homer. Three of their doubles were clutch two-out, RBI knocks.
Blair Moore hit one-out double in the fourth and scored on Zach Esquerra’s double two batters later to give the Lancers a 1-0 lead. In the seventh, Ryan Cathers was hit by a pitch and was sacrificed to second by Andy Crowley. Two batters later, Luke Esquerra drove in Cathers with a double to make it 2-0.
The ’Lopes (30-10, 22-5) cut the deficit in half in the bottom of the seventh, getting a pair of walks and a bunt single. Bengard’s third walk of the inning came with the bases loaded to make it 2-1, but Bengard struck out Mendoza for the third time to end the inning and keep the Lancers ahead.
The ’Lopes also were able to get a runner to third with less than two outs in the third and fourth innings, but failed to deliver.
Antonio Chavarria smacked an RBI double in the eighth, and after Crowley led off the ninth with a walk and was sacrificed to second by Mark Sanchez, Luke Esquerra hit his eighth homer of the year to left field to complete the scoring. He finished 2 for 5 with three RBIs.
Jorge Perez (5-4) took the loss for Grand Canyon, giving up just four hits and two earned runs in seven innings. He walked one and struck out one.
The four-game series resumes Friday with a pair of seven-inning games. First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.
“Anytime you’re on the road, you need this type of a performance, especially in the first game of a series,” said Adcock. “With the guys they (GCU) have throwing tomorrow, it would be even more daunting if we were down 0-1, so this was a good win for us.”