SALEM, Ore. - Jeremy Druffel singled home the go-ahead run in the eighth inning as Whitworth overcame an early deficit for a 3-2 victory at Willamette on Sunday and earned the outright Northwest Conference regular season title.
No. 10 Whitworth (25-8, 17-7 NWC) took a series win from Willamette (18-18, 10-13 NWC) and finished the regular season conference schedule atop the NWC standings, two games ahead of second-place Pacific Lutheran (15-9 NWC).
The Pirates earned their first NWC regular season title since 2012, and first ever outright regular season title since joining the NCAA Division III. Whitworth will host the NWC Tournament at Merkel Field next weekend.
Willamette wasted no time in jumping to a lead on Sunday as leadoff hitter Troy Conway belted his first career home run over the wall in right field. Mason Fessler and Eric Del Prado followed with consecutive one-out singles before a wild pitch placed both runners in scoring position. A second wild pitch allowed Fessler to score for the 2-0 lead.
After allowing the two early runs, Whitworth starter T.J. Orchard settled down and went eight innings, allowing just the two runs and scattering nine hits. He improved to 6-1 on the season, striking out four and walking one.
Whitworth consistently threatened to score with 11 baserunners between the second and sixth innings, including a bases-loaded situation in the sixth. But it wasn't until the seventh inning that the offense was finally able to put a run across the plate.
A leadoff double from Druffel opened the seventh and he later scored with a sacrifice fly by Jordan McGowan. JT Phelan brought the Pirates even with a two-out, solo home run over the fence in left field. The game-tying home run was his fifth of the season.
An inning later in the eighth, Druffel delivered a bases-loaded single through the left side to score Nate Lamberty for the 3-2 lead. Whitworth had loaded the bases with no outs as a leadoff single by Lamberty was followed by Casey Isa getting hit by a pitch and Daniel Casanova reaching with a bunt single. Willamette reliever Jackson Watt did well to escape further damage after Druffel's hit by recording a strikeout and inducing a double play to halt the rally.
The Bearcats put the tying run on base in the bottom of the eighth when Del Prado singled to begin the inning, but a fly out and an inning-ending double play concluded the eighth and Orchard's outing.
Pinch-hitter Ty Wyatt reached with a two-out single in the ninth to put the tying run on base once again, but a fly out ended the game and sparked an on-field dogpile celebration by the Pirates.
Tim Bever relieved Orchard in the final inning and picked up his first save. Evan Giddings (1-1) faced only two batters in the eighth but took the loss.
Druffel finished 3-for-5 with a run scored and an RBI while Joel Condreay went 2-for-3 with two walks to help lead the offense as the resilient Pirates recorded their 15th come-from-behind win of the season.
Del Prado and Connor Bailey each went 3-for-4 to lead Willamette.
The Pirates actually clinched the outright title during the eighth inning of their game when the game between Lewis & Clark and Pacific Lutheran went final with a win by the Pioneers in Portland, Ore. Pacific Lutheran entered the day one game back of Whitworth in the NWC standings, and thus a loss by the Lutes or a win by the Pirates clinched an outright regular season title for Whitworth.
The 2016 NWC Tournament will be held April 22-24 at Merkel Field. The champion of the double-elimination tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The tournament field is composed of the top four teams in the NWC standings.
Top-seeded Whitworth will face fourth-seeded Pacific (Ore.) at noon on Friday while second-seeded Pacific Lutheran will open against third-seeded George Fox at 3 p.m. Whitworth will look to claim its second consecutive postseason title, after winning the inaugural NWC Tournament in 2015 as the No. 3 seed.