Not so fast. Azusa Pacific dropped six runs – with two outs no less – on the Sea Lions to tie it up. Then Baxter Halligan, who already had pitched seven innings of one-run ball, stepped up to bail out PLNU, giving his team the 8-7 win.
With the victory, the Sea Lions (47-7) need one more win in their next two games against the Cougars (37-19) to advance to the Division II College World Series.
The first game begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, with the second, a winner take all, if needed, set for 2 p.m. at PLNU’s Carroll B. Land Stadium.
Halligan, honored as Pitcher of the Year in the PacWest conference and beyond, recovered from an early solo homer to retire 21 of the 22 batters he faced. He also broke the PacWest’s single-season strikeout record with 10, leaving him in line for his 13th win of the season.
But it was not to be, as relievers Cayden Rana and Zachary Veen promptly gave up the big six runs upon Halligan’s departure from the mound. The onslaught included three homers, among them the game-tying two-run blow by third baseman Tido Robles.
Halligan, though, also serving as DH, wasn’t done. He got his third hit of the day, a two-out double, in the bottom of eighth after an Otto Kemp walk and a Scott Anderson single. Kemp scored on the knock to put the Sea Lions back ahead, 8-7.
Still, the scare wasn’t over, as the normally reliable Cole Hillier ended up in a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the ninth. But he quelled the Cougar comeback attempt, retiring Jeffrey Castillo and Aaron Roose on two fly balls for his 15th save.
Point Loma head coach Justin James noted Halligan’s prowess both at the plate and as a starting pitcher.
“He’s just tough,” James said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached.”
Halligan had an electric start, with one key hiccup. He struck out six of the first seven hitters – except for the second, Will Stroud, who homered to give Azusa Pacific a 1-0 lead.
Point Loma got him off the hook in the third with a sacrifice fly by Anderson to score Jason DuMont and even the score 1-1. Two innings later, the Sea Lions gave Halligan more breathing room, sending five runs across the plate on six hits.
Jakob Christian added what seemed to be an insurance run in the seventh with a solo homer to left center.
Christian had two hits and two RBIs on the day, while Kemp had two hits and scored two runs. DuMont added two hits and an RBI.
The winner of the series will become the first PacWest school to reach the Division II tournament since 2013. The eight-team championship starts June 4 in North Carolina.