Indians rally in SAC tournament
By Mike London
HICKORY ó Muscle is fine, but hustle rescued Catawba’s baseball team in the first round of the SAC tournament at Lenoir-Rhyne.
Record-breaking right fielder Jerry Sands drove a fastball out of sight in the first inning and sent a breaking ball whistling toward the trees beyond the center-field fence in the eighth. Still, the key to Catawba’s 10-7 victory on a scorching Thursday afternoon was Bubba Morris’ mad dash to second base that kept a seven-run eighth inning alive.
If Morris doesn’t sprint from first to second like he’s being chased by a swarm of bees, top-seeded Catawba (35-14) probably loses its opener in the double-elimination event.
“Bubba’s hustle was the key to the game,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “He extended that big inning. That’s what gave us a chance.”
Sands’ first homer helped stake All-SAC pitcher Blake Ketner to an early 3-1 lead, but it disappeared in the fourth inning. A two-out error gave the sixth-seeded Bulldogs (19-33) an extra out, and Aaron Knowles belted a grand slam to put Wingate ahead 5-3.
“Blake’s pitching pretty good, but the error when he’d pitched his way out of the inning and the grand slam took some gas out of him,” Gantt said.
The deficit grew.
It was 6-3 after Heath Weatherford homered off Ketner to lead off the fifth, and it was 7-3 when Knowles singled with the bases loaded against reliever Tim Holmes in the top of the eighth.
It would have been 8-3, but center fielder David Thomas cut down another run at the plate with a perfect peg to catcher Ryan Query.
Catawba hadn’t scored since the third inning against Wingate pitcher Dusty White, but Thomas’ throw was the spark that started a bonfire.
“They got that one big blow and we weren’t playing very well, but we knew there was still a long way to go,” Sands said. “Our offense is always ready to explode, and we’ve done it more than once late in games. We just seem to go into an extra gear, and a lot of times it’s in the eighth inning.”
White retired Query to open the eighth. Lyerly, who made the error on a slow bouncer to third base that got Ketner into trouble in the fourth, made amends with his 10th home run to make it 7-4.
Brett Hatley then lined a clean single, but Chris Ahearn’s grounder created a force play for the second out. Morris, who had contributed a bloop hit and a walk, was hit by a pitch to put two on.
No. 9 hitter Matt Kepley had stroked three screamers ó two doubles and a lineout ó but he bounced one toward second base that looked like a third out.
Morris, who got a super jump, beat the flip for a force play at second by an eyelash. The inning lived, and the Indians were back to the top of the lineup.
Thomas, the SAC Player of the Year, stepped to the plate 0-for-4, but fellow senior Chad Baker, standing on deck, liked the odds.
“We always feel like there’s a chance,” the second baseman said. “With us, it seems like it’s just a matter of time.”
Thomas’ hard grounder found a hole through the right side. Ahearn and Morris scored, it was 7-6, and White was finally knocked out.
Baker worked the count against reliever Cameron Falcon and knew he’d be challenged on a 3-1 pitch with the menacing figure of Sands looming in the on-deck circle.
“With Jerry next, pitchers stay aggressive with me, so I have to be aggressive myself,” Baker said.
Baker got just about all of one and launched the ball on a high arc to left field, but Bears Field is big. Spencer Robinson retreated to the fence and had a chance to make a great play, but the ball struck the wall next to him.
“I thought he might catch it,” Baker said. “It was a good feeling to see D.T. (Thomas) rounding third.”
Kepley scored the tying run on Baker’s double. When Thomas crossed behind him, the Indians led 8-7.
A few seconds later, Sands timed a breaking ball perfectly for his 20th homer, and it was 10-7.
Tempers flared after Query banged his fourth single and Lyerly was nailed by a pitch, but the disruption was limited to words and order was restored.
Tim Smith, who hasn’t pitched in weeks because of elbow inflammation, took the mound in the ninth, finished off the Bulldogs and preserved a win for Holmes.
“It was a real relief to see Tim get in there,” Sands said. “He’s one of our best and one of our leaders. He brings an attitude that gets us going.”
Catawba plays Lenoir-Rhyne today at L-R at 3:45 p.m. … The six-team tournament simulates the format of the six-team South Regional. … The SAC tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the regional, but the regular-season champion (Catawba) doesn’t.n
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.