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Lander rally falls short in National Baseball Finals

Lander's Graham Ramos (5) makes it safely to second base Monday evening against Southern Indiana. (Photo by Bob Stoner)
Lander's Graham Ramos (5) makes it safely to second base Monday evening against Southern Indiana. (Photo by Bob Stoner)

CARY, N.C. - Lander University's quest for a baseball national championship must now go through the loser's bracket.

The Bearcats battled back from a 5-0 deficit but fell short, losing to the University of Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles 6-5 Monday at the 2014 NCAA Division II National Baseball Finals at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

Lander first baseman Connor Lewis had four RBI, including a three-run double that pulled the Bearcats within 5-4. But Lander could not overcome seven walks and three hit batters.

The nationally third-ranked Bearcats fell to 52-8 with only their second loss in their last 24 games and must beat No. 1 ranked University of Tampa in Wednesday's 3 o'clock elimination game. Tampa ousted Chico State 14-6 earlier Monday.

If the Bearcats were to beat Tampa, they would have to defeat Southern Indiana twice (Thursday and Friday) to advance to Saturday night's championship game in Cary.

The Screaming Eagles improved to 47-12 and are now in the driver's seat in their side of the bracket. They won the national championship in 2010.

Like Chico State, the Bearcats were facing another team with lesser offensive credentials. Lander entered Monday's game as the top-scoring team in the nation with 551 runs to Southern Indiana's 319. Also, the Bearcats had outhomered USI 78-9.

Lander handed the start to Mason McCullough, giving him the rare opportunity to pitch in both the Division I and II College World Series. As a reliever for the University of North Carolina last year, he retired the only two batters he faced against North Carolina State in Omaha.

The Bearcats went down in order in the first two innings Monday and got only Chris Hyatt's single in the top of the third. Southern Indiana drew three walks in the first two innings but also failed to score.

The Screaming Eagles scored the first run of the game when Kyle Kempf led off the bottom of the third with his fourth homer of the season, lining McCullough's fast ball well beyond the left-field fence. It was just USI's 10th round-tripper of the year.

Lander threatened in the top of the fourth when Patrick Grady was hit by a pitch for the 19th time this season and Lewis walked. But Thomas Berry's sacrifice bunt attempt forced Grady out at third, and Weston Lawing hit into an inning-ending double play.

McCullough had major control problems in the fourth, walking Hamilton Carr and Matt Bowles, hitting Brad Wannemuehler with a pitch to load the bases, and also hitting Caleb Eickhoff to force home a run.

Ryan Jones replaced McCullough and hit Kempf with an 0-1 pitch, forcing home another USI run. Andrew Cope laced a single over first baseman Lewis's head into right field, driving in two runs to give Southern Indiana a 5-0 lead.

The Screaming Eagles still had runners on first and third with nobody out. But Lander escaped further damage, starting when Lewis fielded Matt Chavarria's ground ball and threw Kempf out at home on a controversial call for the first out of the inning. Then shortstop Erik Lunde fielded Brent Weinzapfel's grounder and nabbed Cope as he aggressively rounded third and tried to get back to the bag. Ryan Bertram was retired on a fielder's choice to end the inning. Southern Indiana wound up with four runs on only one hit.

But the Bearcats responded with a big four-run rally in the top of the fifth, finally getting to USI starter Jonathon Wandling. Colby Painter hit a one-out double down the right-field line and scored Lander's first run of the game on Hyatt's second single of the afternoon.

After Thomas Bess reached on a fielder's choice resulting in the second out of the inning, Lunde laid down a bunt single to third. Grady walked to load the bases and Lewis belted a three-run double to right center, pulling the Bearcats within 5-4.

Jones helped Lander keep momentum by shutting the Screaming Eagles out in the bottom of the fifth, allowing a one-out double to Bowles but striking out Eickhoff to end the inning.

Graham Ramos reached on an error and stole second for the Bearcats in the top of the sixth but was left stranded.

The Screaming Eagles extended their lead to 6-4 in the bottom of the sixth when Kempf walked, advanced to second on a balk, moved to third on Cope's sacrifice bunt and scored on Chavarria's sacrifice fly to right as he barely beat Grady's strong throw home.

Lander pulled within 6-5 in the top of the seventh when Bess walked, raced to third on Grady's bloop single to right center, and scored on Lewis's ground ball single through the right side giving him four RBI in the game. Lewis extended his national RBI lead to 77. Lewis and Grady moved to second and third on Berry's long fly out, but Lawing grounded out to short to end the inning.

Jones walked Bertram with one out in the bottom of the seventh, handing Southern Indiana its 10th free pass of the game (seven walks, three hit by pitches). Brandon White replaced Jones and fell behind Bowles three balls and no strikes, but fought back and struck him out looking at an inside pitch. White then threw Wannemuehler out on a come-backer, sending the game into the eighth with a one-run Bearcats deficit.

Southern Indiana's David Toth retired Lander in order in the top of the eighth and Jones left a runner stranded at third in the bottom of the inning when he struck Chavarria out on a check swing attempt.

But instead of going back to his shortstop position, Chavarria, USI's closer, took over on the mound in the top of the ninth. Bess flew out to left, Lunde lined out to right and Grady struck out swinging to end the game.

Screaming Eagles starting pitcher Wandling (10-1) got the win, allowing five runs on five hits with three walks and three strikeouts in six innings. Andrew Mercer, Toth and Chavarria each worked a scoreless inning with Chavarria collecting his 13th save.

McCullough (5-1) suffered his first loss of the season, working three-plus innings (facing four batters in the fourth) allowing five runs on only two hits with five walks, two hit batters and two strikeouts.

Jones gave up one run on three hits while walking two and striking out two in 3.1 innings of relief for Lander. White tossed 1.2 innings of one-hit scoreless relief with two strikeouts.

Lewis was 2-for-3 with a double and four RBI for the Bearcats, Hyatt was 2-for-4 with one RBI, and Bess scored two runs.