CARY, N.C. – In a game that took several dramatic twists and turns in the final two innings, NCAA Southeast Regional Most Valuable Player Will Jones came up big again for the Lander Bearcats. (Photo Gallery)
Jones delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth as Lander outlasted the University of Central Missouri Mules 4-3 in the opening round of the NCAA Division II Baseball National Championships after Saturday night turned into Sunday morning at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
The Bearcats improved to 43-14 and advanced in the winner's bracket, facing Nova Southeastern on Tuesday night.
Central Missouri fell to 42-14 and will meet Franklin Pearce in a loser's bracket game on Tuesday.
After the Mules rallied to tie with a run in the top of the ninth, Lander freshman Gatlin Minick led off the bottom of the ninth by walking on a 3-2 pitch. He moved to second on Andy Muehlberger's wild pitch in the dirt. Grant Gavin replaced Muehlberger on a 1-1 count to Mason Dodd, another Bearcats freshman. Minick moved to third on Dodd's slow roller to first base.
Jones, whose pitching performances in the Southeast Regional helped Lander advance to the College World Series for the second time in three years, this time played the hero in the batter's box.
Jones fell behind 0-2 against Gavin. But Jones lined the next pitch well over the drawn-in left fielder's head as Minick trotted home to end the game at 1:15 a.m. Sunday.
Jones rounded first, jumped in the air, threw his helmet and was mobbed by teammates celebrating an emotional victory.
The game was originally scheduled to be played Sunday evening but was moved to Saturday due to forecasted rain (there will be no games played on Sunday). Being Game 4 Saturday and following a 12-inning third game, the Bearcats and Central Missouri didn't take the field until 10:05 p.m.
The first three games were all decided by one run with Millersville beating Angelo State 1-0, Cal Poly Pomona edging Southern Indiana 2-1 in 10 innings, and Nova Southeastern outlasting Franklin Pearce 4-3 in 12 innings.
Game 4 followed suit with yet another dramatic finish.
The game was tied at 1 going into the top of the eighth behind Lander freshman Sam Linn's strong pitching performance. This was when the game started to get real interesting.
Linn walked leadoff hitter Matt Elliott to open the eighth and fell behind Dylan Ferrell 2-0 and was replaced on the mound by Andrew Reardon. Ferrell reached on a bunt single and the runners advanced to second and third on catcher John Mangum's throwing error.
Reardon retired Jake Alexander on a comebacker to the mound and fanned cleanup hitter Bennett Oliver, his fourth strikeout of the game. But Elliott scored the go-ahead run on Mangum's passed ball, giving the Mules a 2-1 lead. Elliott hesitated before charging home and Mangum's throw to the plate was a little high as the runner just beat the throw. Cole Distler popped out to end the inning.
Central Missouri reliever Lucas Williams was cruising into the bottom of the eighth and opened the inning by striking out both Zach Daly and Colby Lusignan. But he walked Lander designated hitter Thomas Berry and Sage Cornatzer became the pinch runner as Mangum stepped to the plate hoping to redeem himself.
After Cornatzer reached second on a wild pitch, Mangum blasted a long homer well over the left-field fence for a 3-2 Bearcats lead, setting off a wild celebration. It was Mangum's fourth post-season homer and 13th of the season. It was the team's first hit since the third inning.
Lander had confidence going into the top of the ninth, sending closer Brandon White to the mound. But Matt Safranek reached on an infield single back to the pitcher and was replaced by pinch runner Dusty Maas, who moved to third on pinch hitter Collin Nevil's one-out single.
Maas scored the tying run on Elliott's squeeze bunt as White was unable to make what would have been a difficult play. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third with one out. But White retired the final two batters on a pop up to first baseman Lusignan and a strikeout, setting the stage for the bottom of the ninth.
White (4-2) would wind up getting credit for the victory.
Linn was outstanding, allowing two unearned runs on seven hits in seven innings. He matched a career high with nine strikeouts while walking only one.
Central Missouri threatened in the top of the first, placing runners on first and third with one out. But Linn fanned the final two batters.
Lander took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first when Daly hit his 22nd homer of the season, a solo shot down the right-field line. It was the first homer of the day in the tournament.
The Mules tied it in the top of the third when Ferrell hit a two-out single and scored all the way from first when Lander right fielder Alex Conaway let Alexander's single get past him. But Mangum picked Alexander off third base to prevent further damage.
Linn took care of business in the fourth, striking out the side. And he came up big again in the fifth when with runners on second and third, he struck out the final two batters swinging.
Mules starting pitcher Tyler House allowed one run on just two hits in five innings, striking out five and walking three. Williams allowed two runs on three hits in three innings, striking out six and walking two.
Lander was out-hit 11-4 with Jones collecting two of the team's hits. Elliott, Ferrell, Alexander and Safranek had two hits apiece for Central Missouri.