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Whitworth hosts NWC Tournament with NCAA berth on the line

UPDATED: Thu., April 25, 2019, 8:20 p.m.

Whitworth’s Tyler Bailey has 27 RBIs and is batting a career-best .380 this season for the Pirates. (Whitworth Athletics / Courtesy)
Whitworth’s Tyler Bailey has 27 RBIs and is batting a career-best .380 this season for the Pirates. (Whitworth Athletics / Courtesy)

Whitworth slugger Tyler Bailey’s earliest contributions came late in his freshman year in 2016, the last time the Pirates hosted the Northwest Conference Tournament.

Merkel Field and Whitworth’s piney campus were abuzz, Bailey said, providing an electric atmosphere for the Pirates, who reached the NCAA Division III Tournament that season.

They’re bringing it back to north Spokane this weekend.

Whitworth (22-12, 19-5 NWC), the conference’s regular-season champion, will face No. 4 seed Pacific Lutheran (22-14, 14-10) at noon Friday at Merkel Field.

The four-team, double-elimination tournament’s championship game is slated for noon Sunday.

“I can’t wait,” said Bailey, a Mt. Spokane product. “We proved we were the best team during the regular season, now we have to show up again in the tournament. It should be fun.”

The surging Pirates have won 18 of their last 21 games after a bumpy start.

Whitworth, picked fifth in the nine-team NWC preseason poll, started off the season 4-9 and dropped its opening conference series to Whitman.

When second-year Whitworth coach CJ Perry – a 29-year-old Gonzaga Prep graduate – settled on a three-man pitching rotation, the Pirates’ fortunes changed.

Matt Young (8-3, 2.91 ERA), Ryan Kingma (6-3, 3.39 ERA) and Austin Rice (5-1, 4.05 ERA) turned into a formidable trio, helping the Pirates handcuff their WCC foes.

Behind them was a defense that committed a conference-low 29 errors.

“Defensively, this is one of the most talented teams Whitworth has ever had,” said Perry, a former four-year Whitworth letterman. “And we’re going to stick with the guys that got us and have them throw this weekend.”

Whitworth doesn’t carry a big offensive stick (10 total home runs), but it’s productive.

The senior-heavy Pirates have three of the top four hitters in the league, including NWC batting champion Nick Nerud (.387, 58 hits), Taylor Poffenroth (.381, 45 hits) and Bailey (.380, 49 hits).

Bailey also ranks 17th in NCAA III baseball in doubles (15).

“We came in with no expectations, really,” Bailey said. “So it allowed our guys to go out and play loose.”

The Pirates open the tournament against the league’s top pitcher in PLU’s Justin Armbruester (5-1, 2.66 ERA) who leads the league with 106 strikeouts.

PLU also features Jacob Bockelie, the NWC leader in home runs (10). Whitworth went 2-1 against the Lutes during the season.

The winner of the Whitworth-PLU game will face the winner between No. 2 seed Pacific and third-seeded Whitman in Saturday’s 10 a.m. semifinal.

No team from the NWC is ranked – or receiving votes – in the D3baseball.com Top 25 poll.

Perry was a member of the 2012 Whitworth team that advanced to the Division III World Series.

“We’re not as talented as some of the past (NCAA Tournament) teams,” Perry said. “But we have a knack for putting together offense, defense and pitching at the same time.”

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