On a clear comfortable Tuesday night here at Tim and Nancy Harvey Stadium at Dave "Boo" Ferriss Field, eager fans packed the bleachers to watch the last game of the evening in the third day of the Gulf South Conference Baseball Tournament.
The top seeded Delta State University Statesmen played the fourth seeded Mississippi College Choctaws in a showdown of in-state conference rivals in Pool A. DSU defeated MC in two out of three games to close out the regular season, but both the Statesmen and Choctaws were a perfect 2-0 in the GSC Tournament heading into Tuesday’s game.
The game between DSU and MC proved to the most thrilling contest of the tournament as it went into extra innings. In the bottom of the 11th with one out and a runner on second, Mississippi College's Billy Cameron hit a ground ball that spelled heartbreak for the Statesmen as it glanced off second baseman Emil Ellis' glove and landed in the outfield to send Kyle Smith home with the winning run to give the Choctaws a 9-8 win to put them in the GSC Title game against Lee University today at 1 p.m. Lee won the Pool B bracket.
The loss marked the first time since 2011 that DSU will not be in the conference title game. The Statesmen (40-9) had won the GSC the previous two years. The Choctaws improved to 32-15.
In the 11th inning, Smith had reached base on a walk from reliever Jason Lott to lead things off and was moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Grant Barber. After Blaine Crim, who had driven in five runs, was intentionally walked, the stage was set for Cameron who hit the grounder that enabled the winning run to score. Lott (3-2) took the loss in relief as he gave up an unearned run on a hit and a walk in a third of an inning, while Ryan Lane earned the win for the Choctaws in relief as he gave up three hits and struck out two over 2 2/3 shutout innings of work.
“Both teams certainly fought hard and showed a lot of heart," Delta State head baseball coach Mike Kinnison said. "Both teams really wanted to win. For us, it was too many mistakes. We didn't execute a bunt defense early in the first inning. We made too many mistakes on the mound and brought Crim to the plate too many times in situations where we had to pitch to him and didn’t make any pitches to him and if you can’t field a ground ball, you usually don’t win close games like this.”
MC jumped on top in the bottom of the first as Grim drilled a two-run triple off starter Dalton Minton to put the Choctaws up 2-0.
The Statesmen’s offense erupted in the top of the third. Ellis drilled a RBI-single, Brian Lane tagged a two-run double, Zack Shannon stroked a two-run homer, his 29th to tie the state college record, and Clay Casey followed him with a solo home run, his 17th, to put the Statesmen on top 6-2.
The Choctaws proved that the game was far from over. Crim hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the third to cut DSU's lead to 6-4.
In the bottom of the fifth, MC continued to fight back. Crim was back at it again as he drilled a RBI-double and ended up scoring on a wild pitch to tie the game at 6-6 with two outs in the frame. After Luke Yancey walked, Kinnison went to the mound to talk with Minton. Kinnison decided to stick with Minton. The next batter, Brandon Broussard, tagged a single past third to score Hunter Wilson to put MC on top 7-6. With a 0-1 count to Trey Pittman, Kinnison went to the mound to take out Minton and bring in Hunter Riggins. Pittman ended up hitting a ground ball to Ellis at second, who fielded it and made the throw to Shannon at first for the last out of the inning to keep the score at 7-6.
The Statesmen showed their poise in the top of the sixth. Casey roped the ball into the outfield and slid safely into second for a leadoff double. Nick Morgan laid down a sacrifice bunt back to the pitcher to move Casey to third. Juwan Burney sent Casey home with a sacrifice fly to tie the score at 7-7.
Riggins, a freshman and a former standout of Cleveland High School and Hernando High School, held the Choctaws at bay in the bottom of the sixth and seventh to keep the game tied at 7-7.
In the bottom of the eight with one out, the Choctaws regained the lead as Dylan Duplechain stroked a home run to left field to make the score 8-7 in favor of MC.
Delta State continued to stay cool under pressure. In the top of the ninth, Burney led off the inning with a solid shot to center to end up at first with a single. The next batter, Josh Russell, executed a sacrifice bunt to move Burney to second. The table was set for Justin Nussbaum who drilled a single to score Burney and tie the game at 8-8.
Riggins held the Choctaws scoreless in the ninth and 10th innings. Riggins had a great night on the mound as he gave up just one run on two hits with five strikeouts, no walks and two hit batters in 5 1/3 innings of work. Out of the 69 pitches he threw, 50 were strikes.
“He pitched great,” Kinnison said. “We asked a lot of him to go in a different role and to go further than he had at any point in time this year. I have nothing but great feelings about his performance. One bad pitch but other than that he threw great.”
Through out the course of the game, the Choctaws got good relief pitching from Shelby Craddock as well as Lane. Craddock gave up two runs on three hits with two strikeouts and a walk in 5 1/3 innings of work before Lane relieved him.
The starters for both teams struggled. MC’s Zack Ingram gave up six runs on five hits with two walks and a strikeout in three innings of work, while Minton went 4 2/3 innings for DSU and gave up seven runs on eight hits with four strikeouts and two walks.
Crim led MC’s offense as he went 3-for-5 with a home run, a triple, a double, five RBIs and two runs scored. Smith went 4-for-6 with four runs scored, Duplechain went 1-for-5 with a home run, Barber went 1-for-3 with a run scored and Cameron went 1-for-4.
For DSU, Nussbaum went 3-for-5 with a double and a RBI, Casey went 2-for-4 with a home run, a double, a RBI and two runs scored, Lane went 2-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and a run scored, Burney went 2-for-3 with a RBI and a run scored, Shannon went 1-for-5 with a home run and two RBIs and Ellis went 1-for-5 with a RBI and a run scored.
DSU will now play the waiting game, as the selection show for the NCAA Division II Baseball Tournament Field will be held Sunday at 9 p.m. on NCAA.com. The Statesmen were ranked third in the NCAA Division II South Region Poll heading into the tournament.
“I certainly believe we will be in the regional,” Kinnison said. “I think there would be some injustice if we didn’t (make it), but we’re dealing with the NCAA selection committee. We never know what will happen, but I feel like our team is deserving. I wanted to host but that maybe a different story. We’ll see.”
Florida Southern (37-8-1), which is ranked second in the region, lost two of three to St. Leo this weekend, while Tampa (38-7), ranked No. 1 in the region, swept Eckerd in a three-game series. Tampa and Florida Southern will play each other in a three-game series on Friday and Saturday in Tampa, Fla.