WNC Advances to Play Central Arizona in NJCAA Western District Tournament
Almost just wasn’t enough. The Western Nevada College baseball team came into the ninth inning of Saturday’s NJCAA Region 18 championship game with a three-run lead but could not hold off the bats of Salt Lake Community College, falling 6-5 in the deciding game.
"We were 80-1 with the lead after eight innings in our program's history heading into this tournament," said WNC Coach D.J. Whittemore. "To lose two games in one week when leading going into ninth inning is new territory for our program and heartbreaking."
Despite the one-run defeat to Salt Lake, the Wildcats (44-15) advanced to the district tournament for the first time since 2009. They will meet defending Western District champion Central Arizona (47-13) at 6 p.m. (PST) on Thursday in West Jordan, Utah, to start the double-elimination tournament.
Two days earlier, the Wildcats surrendered three ninth-inning runs in an 8-7 tournament-opening loss to College Southern Idaho. That startling turnaround didn't derail the Wildcats' postseason goals as they defeated College of Southern Nevada 4-2 in 10 innings and CSI 7-4 on Friday to climb into the championship game.
"Playing three elimination games last weekend, two with the season on the line,
shows that our guys are heavily invested in this season," Whittemore said. "We have a lot of strong-willed character-type guys, and our best baseball is still ahead of us."
Even though the Wildcats took a 5-2 lead into the ninth against the Bruins, it was no surprise the outcome was decided by one run. Their games have been determined by a run in four of the past five meetings, with the Bruins (43-8) having won three of those contests.
Dalton Gust got Salt Lake's final-inning rally started with a double off WNC's second reliever, Anthony Consiglio. After a fly out, Consiglio walked Braden Anderson and Steven Adam to load the bases. Dominique Taylor's two-run double scored Gust and Anderson, bringing the Bruins within a run, 5-4. Palmer Page walked to again fill the bases, but Consiglio recorded the second out by getting Tyson Popoff to pop up in the infield.
One out from forcing a second championship game, Consiglio couldn't put away Kennedy Kinkade, whose walk-off hit plated the tying and winning runs.
"What made it a lot easier is knowing we had somebody like Anthony on the mound," said Whittemore, noting his second-year pitcher's preparation and experience in these types of situations. "Even Mariano Rivera has blown a couple of saves. It happens. Baseball has a way of humbling you; it's very unpredictable. It gives us a chance to overcome more adversity."
The Bruins scored one run in the opening inning and then relied on tenacious fielding and the arm of starting pitcher Ruddy Acosta to hold off the Wildcats for five innings. WNC starting pitcher Tyler Spencer was equally stingy, striking out four and walking only two Bruins in five innings on the mound.
Anderson beat out a swinging bunt to lead off Salt Lake's first. Then, after Adam reached on a force out, and Taylor hit a ground-rule double to move Adam to third. Right fielder Dillon Ness made a diving catch of Page's ensuing line drive, but Adam was able to scoot home from third base on the sacrifice fly for the game's first run.
Derrick Pitts got the Wildcats' offense going, leading off the third with a bunt single down the third-base line, and a subsequent throwing error by Acosta allowed Pitts to move to second base. Cole Ferguson walked, then Bobby Pappin was retired when shortstop Popoff made an over-the-shoulder catch in shallow left field. Salt Lake turned an inning-ending double play to keep the Wildcats scoreless.
In the fourth inning, an unfortunate bounce prevented the Wildcats from tying the score. Mike Umscheid hit a sharp single to center, then Zach Hendrix lined a ground-rule double to the gap, holding Umscheid on third base. Acosta kept the runners from advancing any farther, getting the next two outs and preserving the 1-0 lead.
Western Nevada finally broke through against Acosta in the sixth, using two errors and two base hits to score three runs and go in front 3-1. Alex Schmidt's fielder's choice scored Umscheid with the tying run, Ness' groundout brought home Hendrix with the go-ahead run, and Pitts' RBI single scored Schmidt to put WNC ahead 3-1.
But the Bruins answered within minutes. Adam led off the bottom of the frame with a triple, and Taylor followed with an RBI to narrow the gap to 3-2. The Wildcats went down in order in the top of the seventh inning, and gamely held on until Consiglio struck out Taylor to end the inning.
WNC’s breakout inning came in the top of the eighth against Bruins reliever Aaron Robbs, when the Wildcats scored two runs on RBI doubles by Ness and Pitts and pulled ahead, 5-2. The Wildcats looked invincible in the bottom of the inning when Consiglio struck out two and Pitts made a diving catch to sit down Popoff.
But the ninth inning proved heartbreaking. Ferguson, starting at catcher, kept Matt Medina out of scoring position in the bottom of the second, firing a strike to shortstop Woolley, who put down the tag for the third out.
Pitts led the Wildcats' nine-hit attack with three hits and two RBI. Umscheid and Hendrix each collected two hits, and Ness knocked in two runs.
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