BRIGHT SPOT: Temple College freshman shortstop Seth Stephenson connects for a fourth-inning double to left field against McLennan pitcher Logan Henderson in Thursday's doubleheader opener at Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. Stephenson hit another double in the sixth, but he had the Leopards' only hits as Henderson struck out 10 to help the Highlanders win 2-0. Temple's Nathan Medrano (8-4) pitched a complete game. In Game 2, MCC scored four runs in the eighth and beat 16th-ranked TC 13-9 as the Highlanders (35-16, 23-7) clinched the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference championship. Second-place Temple (37-12, 20-10 NTJCAC) will complete its regular season Saturday by hosting McLennan in a noon doubleheader at Danny Scott Sports Complex. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
WACO – Within the next two weeks, the Temple College baseball team might win the NJCAA Region V championship and earn its fourth trip to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
But as the No. 16-ranked Leopards pursue those goals, they will not be doing so as champions of the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference.
Their hopes and dreams of grabbing the NTJCAC crown and hosting a postseason tournament next week evaporated on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon at Bosque River Ballpark, where TC's inability to produce clutch hits in Game 1 and make the necessary defensive plays in Game 2 allowed rival McLennan Community College to sweep the doubleheader showdown and clinch the outright league title.
Logan Henderson compiled 10 strikeouts in a two-hitter to edge fellow right-hander Nathan Medrano in a pitchers' duel as the first-place Highlanders seized a 2-0 victory in the seven-inning opener, putting the second-place Leopards in a must-win predicament entering the nine-inning finale.
In a wild, back-and-forth battle that featured four ties and seven lead changes, Temple's infield defense committed four of its eight errors during the bottom of the eighth and McLennan took full advantage by scoring four runs en route to a 13-9 win that cemented the Highlanders as NTJCAC champions.
“It's obviously a disappointment,” Temple head coach Craig McMurtry said after his Leopards (37-12) – who needed at least one win Thursday to remain in contention for the conference title during the regular season's final week – dropped to 20-10 in NTJCAC competition and now are tied with Weatherford for second place. “We put ourselves in position all year long to have a chance to win conference, knowing it's going to come down to these last four games. You want to play your best baseball, and we didn't even come close today.
“As coaches, you feel like your players were not prepared. We didn't hit in the first game against a pitcher who's pretty stinkin' good, and the second game was ugly,” added McMurtry, who helped pitch McLennan to the 1980 JUCO World Series and whose Highlanders jersey number is retired. “The pitching was not great, and we couldn't field it or throw it. You have to give their first guy (Henderson) credit, but in the second game it was just bad baseball. That was not the time to do it, when you have to win that second game. Hat's off to McLennan, because they've got a great team, but we didn't get it done. It was a bad day.”
Temple will conclude the four-game series and the regular season by hosting McLennan (35-16, 23-7 NTJCAC) in a doubleheader at noon Saturday at Danny Scott Sports Complex. The Leopards had hoped to have an opportunity to capture the NTJCAC championship at their home ballpark, where they're 22-1 overall this season and 14-0 in league games.
But with the conference crown no longer attainable, Temple will seek to avoid losing an NTJCAC series for the first time this year. The Leopards also aim to rebuild their momentum and confidence before they hit the road for a four-team, double-elimination Region V tournament next Friday – either back at McLennan in Waco or in Big Spring, where the 14th-ranked Hawks of Western Junior College Athletic Conference champion Howard (37-11) simultaneously will host Region V's other four-team tournament.
“We lost the battle today, but we'll see if we can win the war,” McMurtry said, referring to TC's upcoming postseason tournament action. “We've got to flush this out and get to the next game. We can't dwell on what just happened and mope over it. Guys need to step up.”
If Temple and Weatherford – who split their four-game series – finish tied for second place, the Coyotes own the tiebreaker for the NTJCAC's No. 2 seed because they went 3-1 against McLennan. In that scenario, the Leopards would compete in the MCC-hosted regional tournament next weekend as their league's No. 3 seed. Weatherford gained a road sweep of eighth-place North Central Texas on Thursday and hosts the Lions in a Saturday doubleheader.
For obvious reasons, spirits were much higher in and around McLennan's dugout as head coach Mitch Thompson's Highlanders celebrated securing the conference championship.
MCC will host a four-team regional tournament May 14-17, with the winner advancing to a best-of-three Region V championship series against the victor of the four-team tournament at Howard. The regional champion earns an automatic berth in the Junior College World Series, where Thompson's Highlanders were runners-up in 2015 before placing fifth in 2017.
“This is a big deal. I've said it for a long time: I think our conference is the SEC (Southeastern Conference) of junior college baseball,” said Thompson, in his seventh season as McLennan's head coach after a long run as a Baylor assistant coach. “When you have a chance to win a conference championship, it's a big deal. So I'm really proud of our guys.
“We won these games a couple of different ways. We outdueled (Temple) on the mound in Game 1. Logan Henderson was phenomenal and we got just enough off of Medrano to make that happen,” Thompson added. “And then in Game 2, we had to fight and did enough offensively, and they helped us out a little bit defensively so we took advantage of the opportunities. Temple's got a good club, and they pitched it well and competed hard at the plate. They just struggled with some plays on defense and it cracked the door for us, and thankfully we were able to make it hurt and to make it count.”
Henderson, a sturdy right-hander who's committed to Texas A&M, pitched a seven-inning perfect game with 12 strikeouts in McLennan's 4-0 win at North Central Texas last Friday. The 5-foot-11 freshman wasn't perfect in the Game 1 clash with Temple, allowing a pair of doubles to speedy leadoff batter Seth Stephenson, the Leopards' second-year freshman shortstop who's signed with Tennessee and is being scouted heavily for Major League Baseball's amateur draft in July.
However, Henderson (6-2) didn't allow a hit to any other TC player or issue any walks, and the only error McLennan's defense made behind him was inconsequential.
“We competed our butts off on defense all day. The guys were playing like their hair was on fire, just super high-energy all day,” said Henderson, who improved his earned-run average to 1.56 and has racked up 116 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings while allowing only 32 hits. “We wanted it more than they did, I feel like. To get two wins and secure conference is a big deal.”
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: Temple College sophomore pitcher Nathan Medrano, a Houston signee, delivers to McLennan slugger Garrett Martin, an Oklahoma State signee, during the first inning of Thursday's doubleheader opener at Bosque River ballpark in Waco. Medrano struck out Martin twice and pitched a complete game, but Martin's Highlanders edged the Leopards 2-0 behind the shutout pitching of Logan Henderson, a Texas A&M commitment. Martin hit a home run and a two-run double in Game 2 as McLennan won a 13-9 slugfest to clinch the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference championship. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Medrano (8-4), a third-year sophomore and Houston signee, walked two Highlanders in the bottom of the first inning but escaped without any scoreboard damage when center fielder Joseph Redfield caught Dominic Tamez's two-out fly ball against the fence.
McLennan drew first blood in the second when Alex Lopez led off by launching a home run, his fifth, to right field for a 1-0 lead.
Combining a well-controlled fastball in the low 90s with an effective changeup and a breaking ball, Henderson struck out four of TC's first seven batters and retired the first nine, extending his two-game run of perfection to 10 innings.
“This guy's been phenomenal all year. When he has lost, it's just because we didn't supply him with any runs,” Thompson said about Henderson. “He really sets the tone for us on the mound. He's always been able to pitch with multiple pitches and throw strikes, and as his velocity continues to go up he just gets better. He can pitch.”
Temple finally got something going against Henderson when Stephenson began the fourth by ripping a double down the line in left field before Redfield's sacrifice bunt moved him to third with one out. But Henderson responded against two of the Leopards' top run producers, striking out Clark Henry with a foul-tip fastball and getting Ty Tilson to pop out to first base.
McLennan gave Henderson an insurance run in the fourth to make it 2-0. Tamez rocked a one-out double to left-center, then Medrano struck out Lopez for the second out. But Hank Bard came through in a key situation by stroking a run-scoring single into center for the two-run lead.
“Nathan threw a good game other than the solo homer and the base hit in the fourth with two outs,” McMurtry said of Medrano, who struck out seven and permitted four hits in his fourth complete game.
After Henderson struck out the side in the fifth, Temple created a scoring opportunity in the sixth when Stephenson slugged a one-out double to left-center and reached third on a wild pitch. However, Redfield's flyout to left was too shallow for Stephenson to tag up on, and Henderson stranded him there by striking out Henry looking with an inside-corner fastball at the knees.
“Henderson had a fastball with some life and had a good changeup,” McMurtry said. “He pitched to both sides of the plate and tied some guys up, and he could elevate the fastball.”
Medrano notched two strikeouts in the sixth, working around a one-out double to right-center by Auburn transfer Mason Greer, son of former Texas Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer. Temple's offense had one more opportunity in the seventh, but Henderson recorded three consecutive flyouts to wrap up his second straight shutout performance.
“I knew that Temple is a really good-hitting team and they've proved it all year,” Henderson said. “I just wanted to go out there and give my team a shot to win today.”
Other than the team that prevailed, the action-packed nine-inning second game didn't bear much resemblance to the low-scoring opener. TC led 2-0 after half an inning and eventually produced 12 hits and nine runs, but McLennan lost leads of 3-2, 5-3, 8-6 and 9-8.
Facing MCC left-hander Jack Hattrup, Stephenson hit an infield single and Travis Chestnut walked to start the Temple's first, then a one-out double steal put both runners in scoring position. Stephenson scored on a wild pitch for a 1-0 lead, then Andruw Gonzales flared an RBI single to right for a 2-0 advantage.
It didn't last long. With freshman righty Kolby Wilson pitching for Temple, MCC leadoff batter Miguel Santos' high popup behind first base was dropped by second baseman Chestnut as he battled the early afternoon sun, the first of the Leopards' eight errors.
After Blake Jackson walked and Garrett Martin flew out, Greer hit a chopper to Chestnut for a potential double play. But Chestnut's hurried throw to second sailed wide of shortstop Stephenson and rolled into foul territory down the left field line, allowing both runners to score for a 2-2 deadlock. Tamez's RBI single to left gave the Highlanders their first lead, 3-2.
Temple answered in the second as Andre Jackson roped a leadoff double down the line in left and later scored on Redfield's RBI groundout for a 3-3 tie.
Shoddy defense by TC again was a key factor as MCC reclaimed the lead in the second. Wilson struck out the first two batters before Stephenson bobbled Izzy Lopez's grounder and threw past first for a two-base error. Santos made TC pay by ripping a run-scoring double to left, then Jackson sliced an RBI single to left-center for a 5-3 Highlanders lead. Wilson struck out Martin to strand Jackson at third.
Temple's deficit was short-lived, though, as Henry hit a one-out single in the third before Tilson came up with two outs and crushed a two-run homer, his third, to left to tie it 5-5.
Wilson retired all six batters in the third and fourth, and TC took a 6-5 advantage in the fourth when Jackson Sioson was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and later scored on Jacob Elizondo's RBI groundout.
However, that proved to be the Leopards' final lead. The Highlanders got to Wilson with three consecutive hits to start the fifth – singles by Santos and Jackson before Oklahoma State commitment Martin mashed a two-run double to left-center to put MCC back on top at 7-6 and end Wilson's outing. Greer greeted reliever Davis Pratt with an RBI single to make it 8-6 before third baseman Tilson made a leaping catch of Tamez's liner and turned it into a double play.
RACING HOME: Temple College's Jacob Elizondo crosses home plate to score on Cole Payne's two-run, game-tying double as Clark Henry looks on during the sixth inning of the Leopards' 13-9 loss to rival McLennan in Thursday's second game at Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. After being shut out in Game 1, 16th-ranked TC got plenty of offensive production in Game 2 but couldn't overcome its struggles on defense. The Leopards committed eight errors. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
The Leopards were a resilient bunch, though, and reliever Gray Harrison hit Stephenson and Elizondo to begin TC's sixth vefore Cole Payne popped a two-run double down the line in left to tie the game yet again, 8-8. Henry was hit by a pitch and stole second to give TC two men in scoring position with two outs, but burly reliever Riggs Threadgill entered and got Gonzales to ground out to quell the threat.
Another defensive breakdown cost the Leopards in the McLennan sixth. Pratt walked two men and the Highlanders loaded the bases with two outs before lefty Diego Fernandez relieved. Stephenson mishandled Greer's routine grounder for an error, bringing Lopez home for a 9-8 MCC edge.
Temple stranded a runner at third in the seventh but came through with the tying run in the eighth as Gonzales drove a two-out single to left off reliever Landry Wideman to drive in Payne for the game's fourth deadlock, 9-9.
But exactly when the Leopards needed to record a shutdown inning in the McLennan eighth, their defense didn't allow them to get it. Tilson made two consecutive fielding errors at third, then both runners advanced when Fernandez (2-2) balked.
Jackson lined a two-run single over shortstop to push the Highlanders back into the lead at 11-9 and also scored on the play to make it 12-9 when first baseman Payne cut off the outfield throw and overthrew second base for TC's eighth error, with the ball rolling away into an unoccupied portion of center field. Martin then punctuated the outburst by hitting his team-high 16th homer off reliever Marcus Mott, pushing MCC's lead to 13-9.
“When they score 13 runs and only four or five of them are earned runs, that's pretty bad. And it's uncharacteristic of what we've done this season,” McMurtry said. “We beat ourselves in that second game. That's a maturity thing. Big leaguers make errors, but they don't make three errors. They're able to turn the page.”
BACK-BREAKING PLAY: McLennan's Izzy Lopez (5) and Miguel Santos (3) celebrate with Blake Jackson after Jackson drove them in with a go-ahead two-run single in the eighth inning of the Highlanders' 13-9 win over Temple College in Thursday's second game at Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. Jackson also scored on the play when the Leopards' defense made an errant throw past second base and into center field, one of TC's four errors in the inning and eight in the game. Looking are Leopards pitcher Diego Fernandez and catcher Andruw Gonzales. MCC swept the doubleheader and secured the conference championship. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Needing to score at least four runs in the ninth to keep its conference title hopes alive, Temple got a one-out single from Belton product Dylan Blomquist but nothing else. When Stephenson hit into a game-ending forceout, the Highlanders rushed the field to celebrate their championship, while the frustrated Leopards somberly packed up their gear in the dugout after letting a prime opportunity slip out of their grasp.
Saturday's final home doubleheader against McLennan is TC's first shot to gain positive momentum for what the Leopards believe can be an extended postseason charge.
“The only silver lining is we still have a chance to put two good games together,” said McMurtry, who plans to pitch Ulises Quiroga (9-1) and Blomquist (4-2) on Saturday. “More important is how we play next weekend, whether that's at MCC or at Howard. We've got a four-team tournament and a chance to go win three ballgames.”
Northern Texas Junior College
No. 16 Temple College 0
Temple 000 000 0 – 0 2 0
McLennan 010 100 X – 2 4 1
TC: Nathan Medrano and Sammy Diaz. MCC: Logan Henderson and Dominic Tamez. W – Henderson (6-2). L – Medrano (8-4). HR – MCC: Alex Lopez (5). 2B – TC: Seth Stephenson 2; MCC: Tamez, Mason Greer.
Highlights – TC: Medrano seven strikeouts in fourth complete game this season; Stephenson 2-for-3; MCC: Henderson 10 strikeouts in second consecutive conference shutout; Lopez solo home run in second; Hank Bard 1-for-2, run batted in; Tamez 1-for-3, run; Greer 1-for-2, walk.
No. 16 Temple College 9
Temple 212 102 010 – 9 12 8
McLennan 320 031 04X – 13 10 1
TC: Kolby Wilson, Davis Pratt (5), Diego Fernandez (6), Marcus Mott (8) and Andruw Gonzales. MCC: Jack Hattrup, Gray Harrison (5), Riggs Threadgill (6), Landry Wideman (8) and Dominic Tamez. W – Wideman (1-1). L – Fernandez (2-2). HR – TC: Ty Tilson (3); MCC: Garrett Martin (16). 2B – TC: Andre Jackson, Cole Payne; MCC: Miguel Santos, Martin.
Highlights – TC: Clark Henry 3-for-4, hit by pitch, run; Gonzales 2-for-4, two runs batted in; Ty Tilson two-run home run in second; Dylan Blomquist 2-for-3, Seth Stephenson 2-for-4, walk, hit by pitch, two runs; Payne two-run double in sixth, run; Jackson 1-for-3, walk, run; Travis Chestnut RBI, run; Wilson four strikeouts in four innings; MCC: Blake Jackson 3-for-3, two walks, three RBI, three runs; Martin 2-for-5, two-run double, solo home run, three RBI, two runs; Santos 2-for-5, RBI double, four runs; Izzy Lopez three runs; Mason Greer RBI single, run; Tamez RBI single; Hattrup five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.
Records – Temple 37-12 overall, 20-10 in NTJCAC; McLennan 35-16, 23-7.
Notes – McLennan sweeps NTJCAC doubleheader and clinches outright conference championship; McLennan will host four-team NJCAA Region V tournament May 14-17; Temple will host McLennan in doubleheader at noon Saturday at Danny Scott Sports Complex to conclude regular season.