Western Nevada College has made a habit of preventing big innings and minimizing run totals during the 2014 baseball season.
South Mountain Community College, however, didnâ€™t get the message. The Cougars scored four runs in the fourth inning and six in the sixth inning on their way to pounding out a 16-8 seven-inning victory over the Wildcats in the opening game of the Western District Tournament in Phoenix.
â€œThey are a good team, they swung the bats well and we helped them out,â€ said WNC coach D.J. Whitemore, whose club committed four errors.
It was only the second time this season that the Wildcats allowed a double-digit run total. Southern Nevada was the only other club to do so, scoring 11 runs against the Wildcats on April 26 in Carson City.
WNC (39-17) will play Trinidad State of Trinidad, Colo., or Cochise of Douglas, Ariz., at 9 a.m. on Friday in an elimination game.
Little went right for the Wildcats after they built a 6-2 lead in the fourth inning, and Whittemore didnâ€™t believe his team was fatigued from a two-day bus ride or the 96-degree heat in Phoenix.
â€œI donâ€™t think there are any excuses. We didnâ€™t play well, and they took advantage of it,â€ Whittemore said.
The Wildcats committed three errors in the first four innings, their ace and unbeaten pitcher Conor Harber was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning and Region I champion South Mountain (40-23) put together a stretch of 11 unanswered runs.
â€œConor didnâ€™t have his curveball command today,â€ Whittemore said. â€œHe battled and gave us a chance to win. Had we made a coupe more plays behind him, weâ€™d be having a different conversation now.â€
Joey Crunkilton put the Wildcats on top with a two-run homer to right field in the first inning. That was just the beginning of the offensive fireworks.
The Wildcats missed some opportunities to widen the gap considerably against South Mountain starting pitcher Chris Plitt in the second and third innings.
Back-to-back base hits to center field by Austin Andrews and Sam Hall gave WNC two base runners with one out in the second inning. However, Plitt coaxed an inning-ending double play grounder from Jake Bennett to stem the threat.
In the third inning, a walk to Connor Klein and a double off the fence in right-center field by Christian Stolo gave the Wildcats runners at second and third bases with no outs. After Crunkilton fanned, Alex Fife hit a run-scoring single to center to give WNC a 3-0 lead. But Harber was unable to squeeze in Stolo from third, resulting in the second out of the inning. Tony Roqueâ€™s infield single loaded the bases, but Plitt escaped the jam by striking out Andrews looking.
Crunkilton picked up his third RBI of the game with a bases-loaded groundout in the fourth inning. Hall, who started the rally with his second base hit, came home on the play to put WNC ahead, 4-0.
This time, Plitt was unable to strand the Wildcat base runners. Fifeâ€™s single up the middle plated both Klein and Stolo as WNC moved in front, 6-2.
The Cougars, however, had a prompt answer in the bottom of the fourth. Jeff Carter delivered a two-run triple to left field, pulling South Mountain to within 6-4. Justin Behnke, hitting better than .400 on the season, followed with an infield single to short to score Carter and pull the Cougars within a run again. The Wildcats looked like they would keep their one-run edge but on Sebastian Zawadaâ€™s groundout to third baseman Andrews, Stoloâ€™s second error of the game allowed Behnke to trot home with the tying run.
Whittemore then decided to remove Harber from the mound, bringing in sophomore Spencer Greer. Greer needed only one pitch to end the inning on a lineout to Klein.
The Cougars took their first lead, 7-6, on a two-out single to center field by Melvin Gray in the fifth inning. Eddie Villa started a two-out rally with a base hit to left, then stole second base.
South Mountain broke it open with a six-run uprising in the sixth inning. Two bunt singles and a three-run double by Garrett Gandolfo highlighted the game-turning rally.
WNC didnâ€™t give up, scoring twice in the seventh inning. A single by Harber, a double by Roque, an error on Andrewsâ€™ groundball and a double by Brandon Lapointe helped the Wildcats close to within 13-8. However, winning pitcher Tyler Erwin retired the next two hitters to leave three Wildcats on base.
â€œWe got the tying run on the on-deck circle. We needed a big hit there,â€ Whittemore said.
South Mountain brought the run rule into play by scoring three times in the seventh. A triple by Behnke and a two-run single by Chris Akmon against Wildcat reliever Kyle Pruneau contributed to the final rally. It was the fifth consecutive inning in which South Mountain scored.
In his 3 2/3-inning pitching stint, Harber gave up six hits, walked three and only two of the Cougarsâ€™ six runs were earned. Greer took the loss, allowing five hits and four runs in 1 1/3 innings.
Harber labored through the first three innings, walking three while making 67 pitches.
The unbeaten right-hander got out of a second-inning jam when the Cougars put runners on second and third bases with one out. Harber retired Villa on a fly out to right for the second out. Gray then walked to fill the bags, but Harber ended the inning himself by throwing out Max Fabricant at first base.
The Coyotes capitalized on Stoloâ€™s first error in the third inning to score twice. Both Carter and Behnke crossed home plate when Stolo misplayed Zawadaâ€™s grounder with the bases loaded. However, Stolo came back to start a double play to minimize the damage.
Plittâ€™s afternoon ended when he walked Roque to start the fifth inning. He lasted 88 pitches, giving up nine hits and three earned runs, walking two and striking out three.
Hall, Fife and Roque topped the Wildcats with two hits. Fife and Crunkilton each had three RBI and Klein reached base in four of his five plate appearances.
Coming into the game, WNC only allowed three teams to score more than six runs against it this season. South Mountain was one of them, when the Cougars scored eight runs in the season opener Jan. 31.
The Wildcats are trying to become the fourth team in program history to advance to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. They were also attempting to become the programâ€™s sixth straight team to win at least 40 games in a season.