Bruins Clinch SWAC Title, Right to Host Regional Tournament
Should've, could've, would've.
Those three worn words summed up the emotional whoop-de-doos the Western Nevada College baseball program experienced on May 4 in a pivotal Scenic West Athletic Conference baseball twin bill against Salt Lake.
The Wildcats should have won game one after building an 11-4 lead with ace Dylan Baker on the mound, but the Bruins stormed back for an improbable 14-13 victory at Cate Field in West Jordan, Utah.
"The way that game was going, we didn't feel comfortable," said WNC Coach D.J. Whittemore. "Salt Lake is a championship team and part of the reason for that is they don't ride the roller coaster. They just keep playing every pitch."
WNC also could have won game two, rallying for a 3-2 lead, only to see the Bruins come back again for a 4-3 triumph.
The wins would have vaulted WNC into first place in the SWAC going into the final two games between the clubs on May 5. However, with the doubleheader sweep Salt Lake clinched its first SWAC regular-season title, improving to 31-4 in conference play.
"They proved they were the best team. We had a chance to prove it, and we didn't do it," Whittemore said.
In three of their four defeats to Salt Lake this season, the Wildcats have held late-game leads but were unable to protect them.
WNC (40-13 overall, 29-8 SWAC) started the day with a bang, scoring five times in the first inning before the first out was recorded by Bruin ace Tanner Banks.
The first-inning damage included an RBI double by Dillon Ness and RBI singles by Derrick Pitts, Zach Hendrix and Rayne Raven. The Wildcats also added a run on an infield error.
But Salt Lake scored four runs of its own in the bottom of the first, touching Baker for the rally after the 6-foot-3 right-hander struck out Braden Anderson to open the inning. Run-scoring hits by Tyson Popoff and Palmer Page keyed the uprising.
Taylor Smart's second homer of the season put WNC ahead 6-4 in the second, but Salt Lake avoided more damage when Banks snared Bobby Pappin's liner up the middle to start an inning-ending double play.
Baker seemed to settle down in the second, striking out two Bruins and allowing one baserunner.
The Wildcats continued their bashing of Banks in the third, scoring six runs to take an 11-4 lead. Banks hit Smart and Pitts with pitches back to back to score Raven, then Hendrix came back from an 0-2 count to draw a bases loaded walk, forcing in another run.
But the key play of the inning came on a single to right field by Ness. The hit went under Dominique Taylor's glove and rolled to the warning track, enabling three runs to score and extending WNC's lead to 11-4. The play chased Banks (10-0) from the game, but Salt Lake got him off the hook by scoring 10 of the game's final 12 runs.
"I don't think we let up. We know they're capable of coming back," Whittemore said. "We didn't play well. You have to play good to beat good teams."
Page homered during a four-run third, which trimmed WNC's edge to 11-8. Three of the four runs scored were unearned. Salt Lake took the lead for good by scoring five times in the fifth and held on as the Wildcats rallied for two runs in the seventh.
Baker remained undefeated at 11-0. He didn't figure in the decision, even though he gave up eight earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. Baker struck out seven and walked five.
In game two, Salt Lake pushed across single runs in the second and fourth innings to go ahead 2-0, and that seemed to be enough for starer AJ Carmen. But the Wildcats tallied two runs in the fifth and one in the sixth to move in front 3-2.
Ness opened the fifth with a base hit, and after a Neil Lawhorn walk, Ness scored WNC's first run when Chis Woolley's grounder was misplayed. Smart's sacrifice fly tied the score at 2.
In the sixth, Pappin blasted a one-out double and moved to third on Mike Umscheid's single. Pinch-hitter Cole Ferguson drove home Pappin with the go-ahead run with a base hit.
Tyler Spencer relieved starter Pitts in the bottom of the frame, and Salt Lake took advantage of a walk and hit batsman to go back in front. Popoff's sacrifice bunt put two runners in scoring position, then Dalton Gust hit a two-out single to bring in both runners and give the Bruins the lead for good.
WNC stranded Woolley on third base in the seventh and left runners on first and second in the eighth.
Umscheid led the Wildcats by going 3-4, while Pappin was 2-4 with a run scored.
Pitts worked five innings, surrendering five hits and two earned runs. He struck out four and walked two.
The series concludes on Saturday with the doubleheader starting at 11 a.m.
WNC has already clinched the conference's second seed and has a first-round tournament bye at the May 9-13 regionals in West Jordan.
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