Given its winning tradition and history of solid pitching staffs, that Pacific Lutheran University captured the Northwest Conference regular-season baseball title this season should not be a complete shocker.
In coach Geoff Loomis’ 13 seasons, the Lutes have finished in the top three nine times.
On the other hand, given that much of a lineup that hit .246 last season returned, was it realistic to expect the Lutes to evolve into an offensive juggernaut?
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PLU went from a swing-and-tap team in 2014 (.313 slugging percentage) to a swing-the-lumber squad this season (conference-best .443 slugging). Despite having 125 fewer at-bats, the Lutes (108) nearly matched Whitworth (115) for most extra-base hits in the conference this season.
“We had a lot of the same guys back from a team that hit nearly .250, but they had a lot of at-bats under their belts,” Loomis said. “And it changed. Why? That is a good question. The thing we did differently is we dedicated ourselves in the weight room. Our strength and conditioning coach Chris Rice took it upon himself to develop baseball-specific training for our guys to do.
“We even have a couple of conditioning days built within our practices during the season. I think it is paying off.”
In past seasons, winning the NWC would have locked up the league’s automatic qualifying spot to the national tournament. Not this year however, as the berth will come through the conference’s first postseason tournament.
Since PLU (26-9) won the conference’s regular season, it will host this weekend’s four-team, double-elimination tournament. The Lutes open play Friday against fourth-seeded George Fox at 1 p.m.
The only time PLU has ever reached the NCAA Division III tournament was 2007. The Lutes shared the conference title with George Fox in 2009, but did not get in. A season later, the Lutes won 30 games to finish second, and did not receive an at-large berth.
“It has been tough for us to get to NCAA (West Regionals),” Loomis said. “And the conference tournament happened to fall the year we win the league by two games.
“That is how it goes sometimes. But I have always voted for the (NWC) tournament. I think it’s great ... and it should be a great testing ground for us.”
The shining example of how the Lutes have evolved is Landon Packard, a light-hitting but defensive-whiz shortstop who came from Emerald Ridge High School.
Last season, Packard was a part-time player who hit .190. He came into this year without a defined role, much less a full-time job.
“You can look at any of my stats up to this year, I had never excelled at the plate. Even in high school, I hit .260. I was just never good at it, even when I put in the work,” Packard said.
Packard said during the Lutes’ season-opening, four-game trip to Arizona in February, he was taking batting practice when the baseball began jumping off his bat. Something clicked.
And in his first game, an 11-8 PLU win over the University of Texas-Dallas, Packard delivered two doubles and a triple. He has been hitting ever since, and has not only become a full-time player, he has hit in the 3-hole much of the year.
“I wished I could tell you what it was that clicked, but I can’t,” said Packard, a sophomore. “I am thankful it stayed around all year.
“It was a confidence thing. But that is what hitting is.”
Loomis said he had more concern with a pitching dropoff coming into the season, especially after he had a pair of junior aces pitchers in Max Beatty (2013) and Trevor Lubking (2014) taken in the major-league amateur draft in back-to-back years.
And last offseason, Derrick Mahlum, expected to be the top starter on the staff, hurt his elbow, and had Tommy John surgery.
But senior Chris Bishop of Rochester adroitly filled the role as staff workhorse, winning a team-high six games. Transfer Kyle Rossman, also an Emerald Ridge grad, won five games. And at the back end, All-American closer A.J. Konopaski had 10 saves to become just the sixth player in NCAA Division III history to rack up 30 or more career saves.
Last week, Loomis earned his 318th victory to become the school’s all-time wins leader for a coach, breaking Larry Marshall’s mark of 317, set from 1984-2002.