Bearcats rally, advance in National Baseball Finals

Starting pitcher Dylan Wolchik makes the throw in time to first baseman Connor Lewis in Saturday's NCAA tournament game against Chico State (Bob Stoner)
Starting pitcher Dylan Wolchik makes the throw in time to first baseman Connor Lewis in Saturday's NCAA tournament game against Chico State (Bob Stoner)

CARY, N.C. - The Lander Bearcats came to the 2014 NCAA Division II National Baseball Finals with the best offensive team in the nation and were facing one of the country's stingiest pitching teams in Chico State. On Saturday, offense trumped pitching as Lander got off to a victorious start in its first appearance on Division II baseball's biggest stage.

Graham Ramos collected three hits and twice drove Weston Lawing home while freshman closer Brandon White escaped a jam in the ninth inning as Lander held off Chico State 6-4 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary. 

The Bearcats trailed 4-3 going into the bottom of the seventh when they scored three runs to take the lead for good.

Lander improved to 52-7 on the season with its 22nd victory in its last 23 games in front of a large crowd of fans who made the trip to Cary, many coming from Greenwood while others were alumni from other areas with a lot of former players in attendance.

The Wildcats fell to 43-14.

The nationally third-ranked Bearcats will meet Southern Indiana (46-12) in a winner's bracket game Monday at 5 o'clock. The Screaming Eagles advanced with a 4-3 upset victory over top ranked University of Tampa earlier Saturday. Tampa had its 21-game winning streak snapped.

No. 5 Chico State and Tampa (51-3) meet in an elimination game Monday at 1 o'clock.

Sunday's other first-round games in Cary feature Minnesota State-Mankato versus Seton Hill at 1, followed by Colorado-Mesa and St. Thomas Aquinas at 5, with winners and losers meeting on Tuesday.

While this was Lander's first trip to the National Baseball finals, the Wildcats from northern California were making their ninth appearance and won national championships in 1997 and 1999.

Chico State and Lander have had contrasting seasons. The Bearcats have outscored opponents 545-262 in 58 games coming into the national finals, leading the nation in runs scored by a wide margin (Georgia College is second with 487). Chico State has outscored its opponents at a much lower rate, 287-162.

Lander has seven players with 49 or more RBI, with Connor Lewis leading the country with 73, Ramos fifth with 66, and Colby Painter tied for eighth at 64. Chico State's top RBI man went into the tournament with 30.

The Bearcats came into the Cary tournament with 78 home runs, tops in the nation by a wide margin (Central Oklahoma second with 63) with Lewis leading individually with 20. Chico State only had 13 as a team. But the Wildcats are sixth in the nation in earned run average at 2.57.

Senior ace right-hander Dylan Wolchik got off to a good start on the mound for Lander Saturday afternoon, retiring the first batter of the game on a tough bare-handed play on the third-base side and then allowing a single and stolen base before retiring Chico State's next two hitters.

The Bearcats went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the first, including left fielder Danny Miller's controversial diving catch of leadoff hitter Erik Lunde's sinking liner.

Wolchik allowed two singles in the top of the second, and Ramos got Lander's first tournament hit with a grounder up the middle in the bottom of the inning. But the game remained scoreless going into the third.

After Wolchik retired the Wildcats in order for the first time in the top of the third, Lander threatened in the bottom of the inning. Chris Hyatt led off with a single, was forced out at second on Thomas Bess's sacrifice bunt attempt, Lunde singled up the middle and Patrick Grady came back from an 0-2 hole to walk and load the bases. But Wildcats starting pitcher Marcos Lara struck Lewis out looking and got Thomas Berry to foul out to the catcher.

The Bearcats broke on top, 2-0, in the bottom of the fourth without the benefit of a hit. Lara, who had only hit four batters in 88 innings all season, hit three in the inning. He hit Lawing and Painter, walked Hyatt to load the bases, and hit Bess on the shoulder to force home the game's first run. Lunde followed with a sacrifice fly to medium right, scoring Painter. Robert Hook replaced Lara on the hill and escaped further damage.

After 12 consecutive post-season scoreless innings, Wolchik allowed one run in the top of the fifth. Danny Miller walked, stopped at second when Cody Slader was grazed by a pitch, was held up at third on Ryne Clark's single to left, and just beat Grady's throw home on Eric Angerer's sacrifice fly to right. Grady made a diving catch on the play and had to bounce back off the ground to make the throw as the Wildcats pulled within 2-1.

Lander increased its lead to 3-1 in the bottom of the fifth when Lawing doubled into the left-field corner and scored on Ramos's double down the left-field line.

Chico State rallied off Wolchik to tie the game in the top of the sixth. Peter Miller was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, Ryan McClellan laced a double into the left-field corner, and Tyler Madrid hit a two-run single to left center, knotting the score at 3 apiece.

Madrid moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Connor Huesers. But Danny Miller lined into an inning-ending double play when second baseman Ramos made a nice catch to his right and tossed a throw from his knees to shortstop Lunde to double Madrid off second.

Taylor Alvarez relieved Wolchik at the start of the seventh and Slader led off with a drag bunt single between the pitcher and second base. Slader stole second and moved to third on Clark's sacrifice bunt. The Wildcats took a 4-3 lead when Slader appeared to make a base-running blunder on Angerer's ground ball back to the pitcher. He was too far off third and broke for home as Alvarez threw to third, but slid home safely as third baseman Painter was trying to tag him from behind rather than make a throw to the catcher.

Lander's bats finally came alive in the bottom of the seventh, producing three big runs to take the lead for good. Lawing led off with his second double of the game, launching the ball high off the wall in left center. Ramos followed with his third hit and second RBI of the game when his grounder between third and short brought Lawing home with the tying run.

Painter, making up for his failed defensive gamble in the top of the seventh, crushed an RBI triple into the gap in right center to give the Bearcats a 5-4 lead. Then Hyatt reached base for the fourth consecutive time when he was hit by a pitch.

Luke Barker, the nation's top reliever with 18 saves, replaced Hook on the mound. Painter scored when Bess reached on a fielder's choice, increasing Lander's lead to 6-4. Bess stopped at second on Lunde's single to right and Lewis walked to load the bases. The inning ended when catcher Peter Miller picked Bess off third.

Alvarez then accomplished exactly what the Bearcats needed, keeping momentum on their side with a shutdown inning in the top of the eighth. He struck out the first two batters and retired Huesers on a hard grounder to short.

After Lander failed to score in the bottom of the eighth, Danny Miller struck out looking on a full-count pitch against Alvarez to lead off the ninth as he was heading to first when the home plate umpire made a late strike call. But Alvarez hit pinch batter Dylan Garcia with a pitch, prompting the Bearcats to bring in White.

Blake Walker pinch ran for Garcia and was awarded third base on Clark's single to right. Walker ran into shortstop Lunde on his way to third and went back to second but was given third due to obstruction. Clark stole second, putting the tying runs in scoring position and placing big-time pressure on White.

But White struck Angerer out swinging on a wicked pitch that slid low and away, and retired Ruben Padilla on a routine fly ball to right fielder Grady for the final out.

Alvarez (10-2) was credited with the victory, allowing one run on one hit with no walks and three strikeouts in 2.1 innings. Alvarez became the third Bearcats pitcher with double digit wins on the season, joining Wolchik (12) and Ryan Jones (10).

White collected his 12th save of the season, allowing one hit in two-thirds of a pressure-packed inning. The 12th save tied Dwayne Eury's school record set in 2000.

Wolchik, the MVP of the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament, worked six innings, allowing three runs on six hits with one walk and three strikeouts. He threw 66 of 96 pitches for strikes.

Lara allowed two runs on three hits in 3.2 innings, walking three and hitting three while striking out two. Hook (8-3) took the loss, giving up four runs on five hits with two walks and one strikeout in 2.1 innings.

Ramos was 3-for-5 with his 67th and 68th RBI of the season, Lawing went 2-for-4 with two doubles and three runs scored; Lunde was 2-for-4 with one RBI; Painter went 1-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored; and Bess had two RBI.

The Bearcats hit three doubles and were hit by pitches five times in the game, extending their national lead in both categories to 151 two-baggers and 128 hit by pitches.