Santa Clarita, CA -- On a day when its closest competitors split doubleheaders, The Master's College went out and swept a twinbill, using a fast start to beat Arizona Christian 7-3 in the opener while rallying in the nightcap to post a 6-4 victory.
Coupled with first-place San Diego Christian's split with Vanguard and Concordia's split with Biola, the Mustangs' (33-12 overall, 21-12 GSAC) sweep drew them within 1 1/2 games of the GSAC lead while widening the gap between them and the Lions and Eagles to the same margin. With two weeks left in regular-season play, the Mustangs have three conference games left while the other three clubs have six apiece.
Wasting no time in the opener, the Mustang bats unloaded on ACU starter Travis Rowe, scoring five runs over the first two frames. In the first inning, Sam Robison (San Juan Capistrano, CA) drew a lead-off walk, stole second base, and advanced to third on Jon Popadics' (Boise, ID) bunt single. Steve Karkenny (Chatsworth, CA) then lofted a sacrifice fly to left field, scoring Robison with the game's first run before Ryan Shackelford (Murrieta, CA) finished off the assault with a two-run homer. It was the senior's fourth roundtripper of the season.
An inning later, the club tacked on two more runs to move ahead 5-0. Spencer Toth (Asheville, NC) was hit to lead off the inning and courtesy runner Bryce Clancy (Phoenix, AZ) raced to third base on Robison's double to center field. One out later, Clancy crossed home plate on Karkenny's groundout and then Shackelford came through again, doubling home Robison, who had advanced to third on a balk.
That five-run cushion was exactly what Mustang starter Tommy Kister (Saugus, CA) needed. The senior righthander had lost four decisions in a row and he wasn't about to let the lead and the game get away. He blanked the Firestorm through the first three frames before giving up a run in the top of the fourth.
His teammates got that one back in the bottom of the inning when Popadics was hit by a pitch, pilfered second and third bases, and trotted home on Karkenny's run-scoring single up the middle for a 6-1 lead.
With Kister slicing through the Firestorm lineup, setting down nine batters in a row in one stretch, the five-run lead was more than safe. However, the Mustangs decided to give their senior hurler one more run to work with in the sixth inning when Karkenny led off the frame with his sixth home run of the season and his second in two days, giving the club a 7-1 advantage.
Kister wouldn't need all those runs to work with but the Firestorm did get to him in the last two frames, scoring a run apiece in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, to close to 7-3. Mustang coach Monte Brooks stuck with his veteran pitcher even when he gave up three hits in the final inning, allowing Kister to post his first complete game of the year while improving to 4-4. Although he allowed 10 hits, Kister struck out three and walked just one.
Accounting for all seven runs in the opener, Shackelford (three rbi) and Karkenny (four rbi) went 3-4 and 2-4, respectively.
The Mustangs nearly duplicated their first-game start with two runs in their first at-bat in the nightcap and Shackelford was the primary producer. With one out and Robison on third base and Popadics on second after earning free passes, Shackelford laced a two-run single up the middle, giving the Mustangs an early 2-0 lead.
That margin was safe over the next four innings because Mustang starter Conner Menez (Hollister, CA), making his second start in seven days, kept the Firestorm off the scoreboard. It wasn't easy, though, for the freshman lefty who induced double plays in each of the first two innings, stranded two Firestorm runners in the third, and benefitted from a strong defensive play in the fourth when Andrew Klausmeier (Northridge, CA), making a rare start in right field, threw out ACU's Geoff MacDonald at the plate to preserve the shutout.
However, Menez' good fortune ended in the fifth when the Firestorm, taking advantage of a couple of Mustang errors and rapping out four hits, chased the southpaw and vaulted past the Mustangs with four runs. Karkenny took over for Menez and got the final two outs of the inning.
ACU's T. J. Cox, who had blanked the Mustangs since the first inning, responded with a shutdown fifth and a split looked realistic going to the sixth frame.
Then, the Mustang bats awoke, and just in time. Tyler Krahn (Abbotsford, BC, Canada) led off the sixth with a single up the middle, moved to second base on Toth's sacrifice bunt, and was joined on the bases when Robison reached on an infield single and Popadics was hit by a pitch. Karkenny popped to second base for the second out but Shackelford kept the inning alive and drew the Mustangs within a run when his infield single plated Krahn.
Stepping up in a big way, Klausmeier then came up with what was easily the day's biggest hit when he ripped a bases-clearing double to left field, moving the Mustangs in front 6-4.
The dramatic hit was the game-winner and Karkenny made it stand up, setting down the Firestorm in 1-2-3 fashion in the seventh and final inning, capping off another impressive relief stint in which he retired all eight batters he faced as he improved to 3-1.
Outhitting ACU 10-7, the Mustangs were paced by Shackelford, Klausmeier, and freshman Caleb Whitley (Carlsbad, CA), who had two hits apiece.
Fast on the trail of San Diego Christian, the Mustangs will take a break from GSAC play this week, playing three non-conference games on Reese Field. On Tuesday, they will host Bethesda at 3:00pm and then will turn around less than 24 hours later to welcome Cal State San Marcos in a doubleheader that will start at noon.
The club will take the Easter weekend off before concluding the regular season with a three-game series at Westmont starting on April 25. The GSAC Tournament, featuring the top four finishers in conference play, starts on May 1.