PLNU’s Margin for Error Is Minimal in Race for PacWest Title 

Since the PacWest’s inception in 2009, only one school has been able to capture the conference crown in three consecutive seasons, and as the 2024 regular season winds down, Point Loma Nazarene University will look to join 2017-2019 Azusa Pacific University among the ranks of three-peat champs. 

Westmont College (No. 15 (31-12-3, 22-5-1 PacWest)) currently holds the lead in the PacWest standings over No. 4 PLNU (33-8-1, 22-5-1 PacWest) due to Westmont owning the head to head tiebreaker over the Sea Lions with a 3-2-1 record against them. With the next closest team in the standings back 7 games, it’s a two-horse race for the final week of the season. Both Westmont and PLNU have four remaining conference games. 

For PLNU to win the PacWest, they must be near perfect. If the Sea Lions lose more than once in their final four games, they may relinquish their championship title to Westmont. Despite the tall order, PLNU has ripped off winning streaks of five, six and nine straight this season, leaning on a pitching staff whose collective ERA (3.84 as of April 19) ranks 12th in the nation and whose strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.42) is second nationally. PLNU’s team WHIP also ranks seventh in the nation at 1.29 according to 

Head coach Justin James said that a starting rotation as reliable and effective as the Sea Lions’ have had this year is a big catalyst for success, one that he credits for allowing the team’s bullpen to stay fresh and healthy throughout the year.

“It can’t be measured. It takes stress off the bullpen, [a pitcher going 7.0 IP] typically means that the pitcher has thrown very well and kept his pitch count intact,” James said. “Dylan [Miller] gives us a great chance in every game one for a few years in a row now.”

Miller, the fourth-year ace, is second on the team with an ERA of 3.36 in a team-high 75.0 IP.  He is also tops on the teams in strikeouts (69). Including Miller’s performances, PLNU starting pitchers Miller, Austyn Coleman and Ray Cebulski have put up eight total starts where they pitched at least seven innings in a game, with each of the three accomplishing this feat at least once. Miller has pitched to this standard on six occasions this season. 

However, the success that the Sea Lions have had this year, success that has kept them ranked in the top 10 in the nation for the majority of the season, is not only predicated on their pitching. 

PLNU ranks in the top 50 in Division II in team batting average (.316) and team slugging percentage (.495) with three players (Eric Smelko, Jake Entrekin, Scott Anderson) posting a 1.000 OPS and six (Smelko, Anderson, Entrekin, Santos, Bryson Hashimoto and Joey Nicolai) batting at least .310 (min. 70 AB).

Entrekin, a third-year San Diego native who played his high school ball at nearby Steele Canyon, posts a .37 6batting average, an OPS over 1.100 and a team-high nine homers in 38 games played, solidifying him as statistically the best power hitter for PLNU in 2024. 

“My approach at the plate honestly changes depending on a lot of factors, but overall, I am just looking for solid contact,” Entrekin said. “I need to be ready on time and get a pitch I can handle.” 

With many standouts in the lineup, including fifth-year outfield transfer Smelko who ranks in the top 30 most difficult players to strike out in America this season according to (6.4% strikeout percentage), and the team’s offensive stats match those of its nationally ranked pitching. 

James said that any player with an OPS as high as 1.000 is a clear difference maker, but what separates them is their ability to do more than simply make hard contact or hit the ball out of the yard. 

“They can work a count, take their free bases, hit for average and [they have] potential for extra-base hits. Each year, these are the guys that help you win baseball games,” James said. “Each approach is molded individually within our core beliefs and team approach. It’s all based off of what we see the most during the year and what the opposing pitcher is going to try and do to us.”

Continuing to lean on their impressive pitching and their ability to put the ball in play, PLNU will look to finish the year playing their brand of baseball in an attempt to snag another conference championship. Biola, PLNU’s final opponent of the Pacwest season, sports a 21-24-1 record this season —good for a .457 winning percentage — but the Sea Lions need to outperform even the lofty standards they have set for themselves this year as they find themselves with little room for error with the sun setting on the 2024 campaign.