- Greg Wille
CLAWING OUT A WIN: Weaver's walk-off double in 11th gives Leopards 3-2 victory, DH split vs. Ranger
THRILL OF VICTORY: Temple College freshman Jake Weaver (far right) runs toward left field as teammates sprint out to congratulate him after Weaver's run-scoring, walk-off double in the 11th inning gave the Leopards a 3-2 win over Ranger in Wednesday's doubleheader finale at Danny Scott Sports Complex. Pinch runner Colby Christian scored the final run. Weaver had three hits in Game 2 for TC (17-11, 6-4 NTJCAC), which lost the opener 2-0 despite pitcher Clay Westbrook's 12-strikeout, complete-game performance. The Rangers (22-8, 7-3) will host the Leopards on Saturday for a noon doubleheader. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Temple College’s offense did major damage in its first four home baseball games of the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference season, racking up extra-base hits in bunches and exploding for 53 runs.
But on a blustery Wednesday afternoon at Danny Scott Sports Complex, run-scoring hits by the Leopards were few and far between against a feisty, competitive Ranger College squad that came in tied for first place.
Fortunately for a Temple team that endured a mostly fruitless day at the plate with a strong breeze blowing in, freshman outfielder Jake Weaver delivered a couple of clutch-situation swings that helped the Leopards avoid a doubleheader sweep.
After Ranger’s Caleb Bunch pitched a three-hitter to outduel fellow right-hander Clay Westbrook and Temple for 2-0 win in the seven-inning opener, Weaver’s RBI single finally got the Leopards on the scoreboard in the second inning of the scheduled nine-inning finale.
Weaver’s third hit of the game was the most important. In a 2-2 deadlock in the bottom of the 11th, Weaver rocketed a Micah Ford slider into the right-center gap for a double to drive in pinch runner Colby Christian for a 3-2 walk-off victory before his TC teammates swarmed him in left field for a festive celebration.
His uniform soaked after an ice-water bath, Weaver was asked when he had recorded his last game-ending hit.
“I don’t think ever. I think that’s the first one. I can’t remember . . . maybe in Little League or something,” said the grinning Weaver, a left-handed-hitting left fielder from Waco Midway.
It’s interesting, then, that Weaver displayed so much outward confidence as the Leopards prepared to come to bat in the 11th, according to 25th-year head coach Craig McMurtry.
“Jake actually told me when the inning started, ‘If I get up, this game’s over.’ That’s what he said,” McMurtry said. “And then of course afterward he goes, ‘I told you! I told you if I get up the game’s gonna be over!’ He’s not cocky, but he’s confident in himself and knows what he’s trying to do. He puts his bat on the ball.”
Temple’s pitchers – Westbrook in a three-hit, 12-strikeout complete game and then Game 2 starter Joel Burgess Jr. plus Garrett Baumann, Tyler Cooper and Christian Okerholm – combined for 25 strikeouts and allowed seven hits in 18 innings against Ranger, which entered with a .393 batting average and 118 stolen bases.
After being limited to 11 hits overall by an effective trio of Rangers pitchers, the third-place Leopards (17-11) moved to 6-4 in NTJCAC play going into Saturday’s noon doubleheader at Ranger (22-8, 7-3) to finish the four-game series.
“When you lose the first game, then a split’s really nice. It would’ve been great to take two, but you put yourself in a situation where you have to win the second game and we did, so kudos to the players,” McMurtry said. “You’ve just got to take it and understand that you’ve got to make some adjustments. Because that’s probably what (Ranger’s pitchers are) going to do to us at their place, is just spin it a lot and stay away, away, away. So we’re going to have to make adjustments tomorrow at practice.”
With sophomore right-handers Westbrook and Bunch dealing in Game 1, not much separated Temple and Ranger. However, a few ill-timed miscues by the Leopards proved crucial.
Dominican Republic native Jhanel Bautista hit a two-out single in the top of the first, then attempted to steal second base. When neither TC middle infielder covered the bag in time, catcher Ty Marthiljohni’s throw went into center field and Bautista raced to third. Westbrook then was called for a balk, allowing Bautista to trot in for a 1-0 Ranger lead.
“Those things come back to bite you in the rear end when you’re playing in a one-run game or a 2-0 game,” McMurtry said. “You can’t make little mistakes. Whoever flinches first is going to lose, and that’s what happened in the first game.”
The 6-foot-6, lanky Bunch (5-1) worked around singles by Cole Tabor in the first and Marthiljohni in the second before Ranger extended its advantage to 2-0 in the third.
Westbrook (4-2) walked leadoff batter Jaden Adams, then Gilberto Torres of Puerto Rico doubled into the corner in left. The runners had to hold on Bautista’s groundout, but Adams came home on an RBI groundout by EJ Alanis to give the Rangers a two-run lead.
Mixing his hard fastball and sharp-breaking slider, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer Westbrook notched nine strikeouts in the final four innings – fanning the side in the fourth and sixth – and retired the last 11 batters.
However, his stellar performance went for naught because Temple never advanced a runner second base against Bunch, who struck out five and walked none. Trent Rucker’s two-out infield single in the fifth was the only hit he permitted in the final five frames.
“Both pitching staffs did a really good job,” McMurtry said.
Added Weaver: We didn’t play a great game. Clay Westbrook had a great game on the mound, but as an offense we didn’t really string hits together when we needed to.”
In the scheduled nine-inning finale, freshman lefty Burgess was efficient and effective as he limited Ranger to a single and two walks through four scoreless innings. The Leopards finally broke through with a two-out rally in the second inning to supply him with a 2-0 lead against righty Emir Encalada.
Rucker stroked a single to center and stole second before Weaver lined a single to right-center to drive in Rucker for a 1-0 advantage. Weaver stole second and took third on a balk before Raithen Malone walked to give TC runners at the corners. Malone then intentionally got into a rundown between first and second and Weaver broke toward home at the perfect time, narrowly beating the catcher’s swipe tag with a deft slide to make it 2-0.
But the next eight innings were highly frustrating for Temple’s offense. The hard-throwing Encalada allowed only one more hit as he made it through six innings, and the Leopards couldn’t add to their lead even after executing successful sacrifice bunts.
Meanwhile, Ranger finally got to Burgess in the fifth. J.T. Thompson drew a leadoff walk and took second on a two-out balk before Xavier Sanchez flared an RBI single to right to cut Temple’s lead to 2-1.
After striking out seven in 4 2/3 strong relief innings in a 10-6 home win over Grayson last Saturday, Baumann replaced Burgess to begin the sixth and allowed a leadoff double to Adams as TC’s right fielder misplayed the wind-blown ball. A wild pitch moved Adams to third before Bautista’s hard-hit sacrifice fly to center drove in Adams for a 2-2 deadlock.
Ranger threatened to grab the lead in the eighth after Baumann issued consecutive one-out walks, but lefty relief ace Cooper came in and struck out Torres before Weaver snared Bautista’s soft liner in left to strand two runners in scoring position.
Temple had a prime scoring opportunity in the eighth after Tabor led off with a pinch-hit single and Cash Russell bunted him to second. After Texas A&M-bound slugger Cade Climie was intentionally walked, an error on the catcher put Leopards on the corners with one out. However, Ford escaped the jam by striking out Hogan Heller looking and retiring Lance Cantrell on a hard-hit grounder to the second baseman.
Cooper thwarted another Ranger bid in the ninth with an inning-ending strikeout of Joshua Comeaux, then he fanned two more Rangers in a scoreless 10th.
Freshman righty Okerholm (1-0) took over for Temple in the 11th and the Georgia Tech transfer notched two strikeouts in a perfect inning, setting the stage for Weaver’s heroics in the bottom half.
Cantrell drew a leadoff walk against Ford (5-2), and Rucker’s sacrifice bunt moved pinch runner Christian to second as the potential winning run. With two hits in the game and first base open with one out, Weaver said he didn’t expect Ford to throw him a hittable fastball.
“I had seen this guy two times already. On the sac bunt (in the seventh) I got a little knowledge on him – how his fastball’s playing, where his arm slot is. Second at-bat, I got a hit off him on the fastball,” Weaver explained. “And then they came out to talk to the guy right before my AB (in the 11th), I knew I wasn’t going to get a fastball. I saw a slider that I thought was down, and then I was sitting slider that whole (final) pitch. He was going to make his pitches and see if I would swing at one.”
That’s exactly what Weaver did, bashing Ford’s elevated slider through the stiff breeze and beyond the outfielders in right-center to let Christian jog home with the winning run.
After touching second on his dramatic walk-off double, Weaver continued to run into left field in a futile effort to evade his jubilant teammates, who quickly caught up to Weaver, surrounded him and doused him with a bucket of icy water to celebrate the 11-inning victory.
“It’s nice to know we can win even without our best offense and that our pitching can be there. Our pitching pitched great all day and we should’ve won both games, honestly. But that’s just the way it falls sometimes,” Weaver said. “We’ve got a great group of guys. Your name’s always going to called at some point in the game, and you’ve got to be ready for it. That’s what we’re taught to do.”
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