Santa Clarita, Calif. -- It would be easy to take A.J. Work for granted. The Master's College senior lefthander has made it look so effortless over the past three years as the Mustang ace, displaying pin-point control, tossing complete games routinely, ending losing streaks, and working quickly to keep his teammates alert.
All that has led to consecutive seasons with 11 wins or more, two straight All-GSAC selections, and the hands-down choice as this year's GSAC Pitcher of the Year.
So, it came as no surprise to Coach Monte Brooks and his teammates, who don't take him for granted by the way, that Work (12-4) would twirl another gem in, perhaps, the biggest game of his career, to date. All the southpaw did was go the distance for the third straight time, limit Tabor of Kansas to just seven hits, strike out six, and shut out the Bluejays 1-0 Thursday afternoon on the first day of the NAIA Championship Opening Round on Reese Field.
The victory, which improved the Mustangs to 41-15, vaulted the hosts into the tournament's winners' bracket where they will square off with GSAC rival San Diego Christian on Friday afternoon.
It wasn't as easy as the stat sheet would indicate, though. The Bluejays stranded eight runners, including five in scoring position, and made Work throw some big pitches to get out of jams.
In the fourth, the Bluejays put runners on the corners with two outs but Work picked off Jake Landers to end the threat. Three innings later, he left runners on the corners when he induced an inning-ending groundout. In the eighth, he left a runner at second base and in the ninth he struck out the final batter with a runner standing on second base.
Meanwhile, Bluejay starter Josh Stone was just as impressive, matching Work zero for zero through seven innings. The senior righthander equaled Work's complete-game effort (eight innings), struck out four Mustangs, and give up the only run of the game.
He stranded six Mustangs on the bases but it was the one that he didn't in the bottom of the eighth that proved to be difference. Caleb Halverson (Temple City, CA) laced a lead-off single to right field, stole second base, moved to third on a Jon Popadics' (Boise, ID) sacrifice bunt, and scored on Cody Harris' (Lakewood, CA) clutch, two-out single to shallow left field.
The Bluejays had a chance to tie the game in the top of the ninth, getting a runner as far as second base before Work closed out a big-time performance with a game-ending strikeout. It gave the program's all-time leader in wins his 30th career victory.
Now, the Mustangs move on to the second round to face a San Diego Christian squad they have been beaten six times in seven outings this season, including last Saturday's GSAC Tournament-clinching, 8-3 win. The first pitch will be thrown at noon.