Western Nevada College freshman outfielder Jake Bennett couldnâ€™t have dreamed for a better situation to step to the plate in the ninth inning on Saturday afternoon.
With the Wildcats trailing rival College of Southern Nevada 3-2 and Joey Crunkilton on first base with one out, Bennett launched the first pitch from Josh Nuernberg over the right-field fence for a dramatic 4-3 comeback victory for WNC at John L. Harvey Field in Carson City.
Paired with the Wildcatsâ€™ 5-1 opening-game win behind the complete-game pitching effort of Rayne Raven, the Wildcats (18-8) moved within one game of first-place Salt Lake in the Scenic West Athletic Conference standings with six games to go.
â€œI knew a first-pitch fastball was coming. He likes to rely on his fastball,â€ Bennett said. â€œHe left it belt high; itâ€™s the pitch you want right there, so it was good to capitalize on it. I was just trying to hit a line drive, and I got ahold of it.â€
For seven innings, the Wildcats were flailing at the off-speed deliveries of D.J. Myers. The 6-foot-5 right-hander struck out nine and shut out the Wildcats on five hits through seven innings.
CSN decided to go to its bullpen in the eighth inning, and the Wildcat offense surfaced. With one out, Sam Hall walked on four pitches. Alex Fifeâ€™s base hit up the middle put runners on first and second. Raven continued the rally with a RBI double into the right-field corner, slicing CSNâ€™s lead to 3-1. Connor Klein deposited the first pitch from reliever Wes Grass into right field, plating Fife.
However, Nuernberg stemmed the rally by striking out Austin Andrews and Spenser Dorsey, the latter with Raven on third base and Klein on second.
Nuernberg picked up where he left off in the ninth, inducing Conor Harber to hit into a groundout. But he walked Crunkilton to bring the potential winning run to the plate.
â€œIt may go unnoticed but Joey had a great at-bat there, drawing that full-count walk to give Jake a chance to win it instead of tie it,â€ said WNC skipper D.J. Whittemore. â€œJake knows the scouting report â€¦ that guy is going to come right after you. He was ready to hit the first pitch, and, man, that was exciting.â€
With the SWAC regular-season champion serving as the host for the Region 18 tournament in two weeks, the Wildcats are focused on the opportunity presented to them after Salt Lake dropped three of four games to College of Southern Idaho at home.
â€œI think we have still have a chip on our shoulder. Weâ€™re not going to lay back and relax,â€ Fife said. â€œI think weâ€™re pretty happy that itâ€™s in our hands. Now we donâ€™t have to rely on other teams to decide our fate.â€
The Coyotes scored twice in the first inning against freshman pitcher Max Karnos. Grant Heyman knocked in a run with a double, and Brandon Pletschâ€™s groundout scored a run. James Youngâ€™s RBI single in the fifth inning made it 3-0 Coyotes.
Young was instrumental in preserving Myersâ€™ shutout. He robbed Harber of a possible two-run single in the second inning, making a diving catch with the bases loaded. He also made an over-the-shoulder grab on a ball that Brandon Lapointe hit in the right-center gap with Klein on base in the fourth.
Otherwise, Myers was setting down the Wildcats on strikes.
â€œMyers was awesome. He was changing speeds. He had a great changeup going today, one of the best changeups weâ€™ve seen all year,â€ Whittemore said.
Bennett said that the Wildcats kept a resilient attitude at the plate despite Myersâ€™ success.
â€œHe was in a groove. We just need to keep grinding. If we just do that, we know we are going to have the opportunity to get runs across the board,â€ Bennett said.
Whittemore said he wasnâ€™t surprised when Myers was pulled after seven innings.
â€œI think they had an eye on the big picture,â€ he said. â€œThey were looking at being healthy in the playoffs. They had a quick hook on both of their starters, who both pitched great today.â€
Whittemore said his bullpen, which tossed 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, kept his team within striking range. Connor Zwetsch threw two innings of two-hit relief, and Jeremy Alderman fanned two of the four hitters he retired and earned his second victory in four decisions.
â€œI want to give the credit to our bullpen, coming in and hanging zeroes there and giving us a chance to come back and win,â€ Whittemore said.
Raven handcuffed the Coyotes on three hits to lead the Wildcats in the opening game. He fanned five and walked one in seven innings.
â€œHe and coach (Josh Moody) got in the bullpen on Wednesday and got a few things figured out, and the results showed today.â€
Raven, who took over the staff lead with his seventh victory, didnâ€™t let the Coyotes get comfortable at the plate.
â€œI was just mixing speeds and trying to keep them off balance,â€ he said. â€œI threw quite a few changeups and two-seam fastballs and got them to ground out and tried to keep it out of the air since the wind was howling to left field.â€
WNC did most of its offensive damage in the fourth inning.
The Wildcats only pushed two balls out of the infield in the fourth but still produced four runs. The rally started innocently enough with Fife blooping a ball over the head of pitcher Blair Goldsackâ€™s head for an infield single. Jake Bennettâ€™s single to right field moved Fife to third base.
Whittemore, realizing that runs were at a premium in the pitcherâ€™s duel, had his next two hitters bunt, and it paid off. Ravenâ€™s deadened a bunt along the first-base line, pushing Fife across the plate for the gameâ€™s first run.
â€œWe have been working on doing a lot of safety squeezes,â€ Raven said. â€œI got a good pitch to bunt, and I got it down perfectly; it just stuck right on the line. I was happy that they tried to let it go foul and I got a base hit out of it.â€
Just as Raven did, Andrews bunted his way on base, filling the bags. Goldsack then made a big mistake as his pickoff move sailed over the third basemanâ€™s head, allowing Bennett and Raven to score the Wildcatsâ€™ second and third runs, respectively. Before the inning was over, Andrews came across the plate with an unearned run, putting WNC ahead, 4-0.
Fife added an insurance run with a five-inning homer to right. It was the sophomoreâ€™s second of the season.
â€œI knew it was out off the bat,â€ Fife said. â€œHe hung a changeup over the middle of the plate, and I got a lot of barrel on it.â€
Fife and Raven carried WNCâ€™s offense in the two games. Fife was 4 for 7 with three scored, while Raven was 4 for 7 with two RBI and a run scored.
As pleasing as the sweep was on Saturday, Whittemore knows the two wins arenâ€™t enough to bring home the SWAC title.
â€œWe have to find a way to keep that momentum and score first tomorrow. As exciting as it is and satisfying as it is, we still have a lot of work to do,â€ Whittemore said. â€œThey are gonna come in here tomorrow with a chip on their shoulder, and we have to do the same.â€
Sundayâ€™s twin bill will begin at 11 a.m. Whittemore will honor his sophomore players between games.