Assisted by an unlikely hero and riding the bitter memories of two years ago, Sacramento State rolled over Utah Valley 10-3 on Sunday in Mesa, Ariz., to win the Western Athletic Conference baseball tournament championship and earn an automatic bid to the 64-team NCAA Division I playoffs for the first time in school history.
The Hornets (39-22) will learn at 9 a.m. today which of the 16 four-team regional brackets they will play in starting either Friday or Saturday.
“We’re not done yet,” Sac State coach Reggie Christiansen said by phone shortly after the Hornets’ historic win at Cubs Park, the spring training site of the Chicago Cubs. “Anything can happen in the postseason. We’re playing good baseball right now.”
In the winner-take-all game against Utah Valley (28-30), WAC Player of the Year Rhys Hoskins led Sac State’s 11-hit attack with two home runs, a single and four RBIs, designated hitter Chris Lewis had two singles and two RBIs, and junior starter Brennan Leitao pitched five innings on two days of rest to earn the 24th win of his career, a Sac State program record.
Right fielder Nathan Lukes had two hits and drove in a run, center fielder David Del Grande homered, and closer Sutter McLoughlin pitched two hitless innings as the Hornets won four consecutive games in the double-elimination tournament after losing to Cal State Bakersfield 4-1 in their opener Thursday.
Lewis was named the tournament MVP after finishing with 10 hits in 20 at-bats and driving in seven runs. The sophomore outfielder entered the tournament hitting .182 and lost his starting position earlier this season after being a Freshman All-American and All-WAC first-team selection last season.
But Christiansen started Lewis in all five tournament games after he played well in the team’s final regular-season game against North Dakota.
“We felt he had turned the corner,” Christiansen said. “What he did in the tournament was something special. He’s extremely hot right now.”
Lewis went 3 for 4 with three RBIs to help the Hornets beat Utah Valley 10-3 on Saturday night, forcing Sunday’s finale.
“The season has been a definite struggle for me,” Lewis said. “But when I got the call Thursday, I felt I owed it to this team to do something, anything. Everything was clicking for the first time for me.”
Hoskins, who had three home runs in the tournament, giving him 12 this season, was named all-tournament along with Leitao and reliever Alex Palsha. Hoskins said the team kept its focus after its bats went silent against Bakersfield.
“We knew we were the best team and had the most pitching,” said Hoskins, hitting .330 with 53 RBIs. “Once we got our momentum, we just kept rolling.”
Sac State, also the WAC regular-season champion, had 24 hits and took advantage of nine Utah Valley errors in the two games.
In 2012, the Hornets missed their shot at history when Fresno State came out of the losers’ bracket to twice beat the Hornets, including 4-3 in the 13-inning championship game. Ten players on this year’s Sac State team were members of the 2012 team.
“We learned a lot from that situation and did a lot better this time around,” Christiansen said. “It was emotional (Sunday) because some of those guys who fought so hard in 2012 and didn’t get that chance are with us (in our hearts) today. It’s an exciting time for the program.”
While this will be Sac State’s first D-I playoff appearance, it’s not the school’s first NCAA playoff appearance. The Hornets made the D-II tournament four times in five years before moving to D-I in 1990.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.