Daniel Avitia needed an inning to catch his breath, settle down and not feel the pressures of his first-ever college postseason game.
The freshman right-hander, after giving up two runs on three hits in the first, showed why he was chosen the Western Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year.
Avitia gave Grand Canyon’s hitters time to find their groove, after not allowing another hit until the seventh, as the Antelopes rallied for an 8-4 victory Wednesday night against Abilene Christian at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa.
Cade Verdusco’s RBI single tied the scored in the sixth against starter Tyler Morgan, and Jonny Weaver’s two-run single broke the 2-2 tie a batter later to allow Avitia to get the win in his first WAC Tournament game.
“They jumped out to an early lead, but with this team, there is no panic,” Weaver said. “It’s been that way all season. It’s what we do.”
GCU (40-17) advances to Thursday’s 7 pm, winner’s bracket game against Lamar.
ACU (26-28) falls into the loser’s bracket and plays Seattle U at 4 pm, Thursday.
Avitia, who is 8-4 on the season, struck out 12 batters, walked two, hit a batter, and gave up four hits, three of those in the first inning when he threw 36 pitches. He ended up throwing 107 pitches, giving up a leadoff double in the seventh, before coach Andy Stankiewicz came out to replace him.
“Usually, I have a very bad first inning, but I started relaxing more, taking deep breaths,” said Avitia, who starred last season at Phoenix Alhambra High School. “I knew my team was going to come back. My hitters got me. I just wanted to keep my team in it.”
Avitia pitched in big games in high school. But this was different. It was the biggest stage yet for him.
He got better command of his fastball after pitching coach Jon Wente came out to talk to him in the first. He had just given up a two-run double to Miller Ladusau and a walk. An error loaded the bases with two outs.
Avitia struck out the sixth batter he faced in the inning to get out of the inning. After that, it was vintage Avitia.
“This was a big one to get us out of the block well,” Stankiewicz said. “He gave us a chance. He pitched a great game. He was tough.”
Vince Reilly came on with runners on first and second with two outs in the eight to strike out pinch hitter Brett Hammit to end the inning and preserve a 5-3 lead. Riilly also worked the ninth for the save.
Tayler Aguilar doubled with two outs in the seventh and eventually scored on a single by Tyler Wilson.
GCU added another run in the eighth on Elijah Buries’ RBI single.
Aguilar knocked in two more runs with a single in the eighth.
“That’s what we preached, (hit) to the middle of the field,” Stankiewicz said. “The guys did a great job. Verdusco, Jonny and Tyler Wilson, and Aguilar. Big base hits.”
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