HIS TIME TO SHINE: Temple College freshman left fielder Andre Jackson produced a big game in the Leopards' 5-3 win over Midland in an NJCAA Region V tournament opener Friday afternoon at Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. Jackson threw out a runner at home plate in the seventh inning, then delivered the go-ahead RBI single in the eighth. He and TC (38-14) moved into a winners-bracket showdown at 2 p.m. Saturday against rival and No. 15-ranked McLennan (38-16), which is hosting the four-team, double-elimination event. MCC's Highlanders swept the Leopards last week in a four-game series. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
WACO – Baseball is a team sport, but its games often are decided by individual moments of brilliance.
Such was the case for the Temple College Leopards as they began the NJCAA Region V tournament against Midland on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon at McLennan Community College's Bosque River Ballpark.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Temple left fielder Andre Jackson charged in and threw a perfect strike to cut down a runner at home plate and preserve the Leopards' one-run lead. Then with two outs in the top of the eighth, Jackson hit a go-ahead, run-scoring single to right to give TC a 4-3 advantage.
And to top it off for Temple, relief pitcher Davis Pratt racked up four strikeouts in 2 1/3 scoreless innings to help the Leopards earn a 5-3, tooth-and-nail victory over Midland, setting TC up for a Saturday showdown against rival and No. 15-ranked McLennan, the tournament host.
It was a win that seemed to require all the energy the Leopards could muster, something that made Jackson especially proud of what he and his teammates achieved.
“My boys never gave up. Everyone was cheering each other on and picking each other up all the way. It was just never giving up, honestly, and staying in the fight no matter what,” said Jackson, a second-year freshman from Austin who played at Odessa College last season. “The best thing was someone saying, 'It's going to come down to you. To everyone in the lineup and everyone in the field, just know that the next play is coming to you and be ready for it. If the next pitch is coming, forget about the last one.' That's really it.”
Temple (38-14) lost its final five regular-season games to slide to third place in the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference and the Leopards hadn't won since May 1 at Hill, so they entered postseason play with something to prove.
Against a worthy opponent in Western Junior College Athletic Conference runner-up Midland (28-15), TC had to be at close to its best to secure the vital opening-round victory.
“When you get to this point and you're playing good teams, you hope that you're going to be able to have separation and have a game where you have a little cushion. But you also probably understand that playing good teams, it's going to be close games,” said Temple 23rd-season head coach Craig McMurtry, who got 6 1/3 effective innings from sophomore starting pitcher Nathan Medrano. “I thought our guys showed some resilience as far as just staying in it.”
The Leopards' reward for getting the job done is a winners-bracket battle against NTJCAC champion McLennan (38-16) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bosque River Ballpark, the Highlanders' home venue. MCC clobbered WJCAC No. 4 seed Clarendon 10-2 in seven innings in Friday's opening game of the four-team, double-elimination regional tournament.
Midland and Clarendon (30-21) play at 10 a.m. Saturday, with the winner surviving and the loser going home.
The tournament champ will advance to a best-of-three Super Regional series next weekend against the winner of the four-team Region V tournament that's being contested at WJCAC champ Howard in Big Spring. Also in that field are No. 2 seed Weatherford and No. 4 seed Cisco from the NTJCAC and WJCAC No. 3 seed Odessa.
The Region V champion will earn an automatic berth in the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
On Saturday, Temple will seek to make up for its recent struggles against powerful McLennan. The Leopards needed to go at least 3-1 in their four-game series with the Highlanders last week to overtake them for the conference championship, but MCC swept the hard-fought Thursday doubleheader in Waco to clinch the league crown and then added two more wins Saturday in Temple for the series sweep.
The Leopards now have another shot to challenge the Highlanders, and the stakes are even greater now that postseason play has arrived.
“We talked about it after we lost to them (last week): 'Hey, this is an opportunity for us to find a way to beat Midland in the first game and get a chance to play MCC again,'” said McMurtry, who pitched for McLennan's JUCO World Series team in 1980 and whose jersey number was retired by the Highlanders. “They've got a good team. That's easy to say. They didn't have to use a whole lot (of energy) today, so we're going to have our work cut out for us. But I mean, this is all you can ask for, are opportunities.”
Against McLennan, McMurtry will send second-year freshman right-hander Ulises Quiroga (9-1) to the mound. The Texas-San Antonio commitment did not pitch against the Highlanders last week. MCC used NTJCAC Pitcher of the Year Logan Henderson in its blowout of Clarendon, so against Temple the Highlanders likely will go with righty Will Carsten (8-1) or a lefty: Brady Rose (7-1) or Jack Hattrup (7-2).
“If we do happen to lose (Saturday) then we'll have to win two games on Sunday to keep playing,” McMurtry said, “but our goal is to have Uli go out there and hopefully have a good game for us and find a way to score some runs.”
Jackson said the Leopards are hungry for another shot at McLennan after experiencing the disappointment of getting swept last week.
“We're very excited and looking forward to it,” Jackson said. “We feel like they got over on us a little bit. We're coming for revenge, for sure. It's going to be a good game.”
Until McLennan won twice at Temple last Saturday, the Leopards had lost only one of 23 games at Danny Scott Sports Complex this season: 6-5 against Midland on Feb. 26 before TC responded with two victories the next day to win the series.
In that one-run win by the Chaparrals, Texas Tech signee Bo Blessie outdueled Houston signee Medrano in a matchup of third-year sophomore right-handers. In the Region V opener at MCC, Blessie and Medrano locked horns once again.
EARLY LEAD: Temple College freshman second baseman Travis Chestnut sprints toward first base after hitting a first-inning single to center field that drove in Seth Stephenson (far left) for a 1-0 Leopards lead against Midland pitcher Bo Blessie, a Texas Tech signee. Chestnut and Stephenson each had a hit and scored a run in the first for Temple (38-14), which defeated the Chaparrals 5-3 on Friday as the NJCAA Region V tournament began at McLennan's Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
The Leopards came up first as the designated visiting team and immediately went to work against the 6-foot-4 Blessie. Speedy leadoff batter Seth Stephenson chopped a single, stole second base and cruised to third after catcher Jared Gibson's errant throw. Travis Chestnut then ripped a single to center to drive in Stephenson for a 1-0 Temple lead. Chestnut then stole two bases and scored on Cole Payne's one-out RBI groundout to make it 2-0.
It was a good thing for the Leopards that they did damage against Blessie early, because they couldn't score against the fluid righty again until the sixth.
“Their pitcher really got untracked after the first inning and started making good pitches with his fastball and that slider,” McMurtry said. “We chased some pitches and stuff, but you've got to give their guy some credit.”
Meanwhile, Medrano – an experienced workhorse who entered with an 8-4 record – had his sharp stuff early against the Chaparrals, allowing only one batter over the minimum in the first three innings to uphold TC's 2-0 lead.
Midland finally got to Medrano in the fourth when Tyler Wulfert launched a solo home run – the helping wind only added to its distance – to left to cut the Leopards' lead to 2-1. Medrano then walked Gibson and Caleb Huertz doubled to left, but with two runners in scoring position he got Chris Garcia to foul out and struck out Luke Bumpus with a big breaking ball to keep Temple on top through four.
“I thought Nathan did a good job,” McMurtry said. “He gives up the solo home run, which really doesn't hurt you at that point in the game.”
Temple increased its lead in the sixth against Blessie. Belton graduate Dylan Blomquist bunted for a one-out single and took second on the late and errant throw. Payne's grounder went for an error and Ty Tilson walked to load the bases with one out. Blessie struck out Jackson with a sharp slider, but then he threw a slider that hit Sammy Diaz in the upper back to force in Blomquist for a 3-1 TC advantage. That was the final pitch thrown by Blessie, who had seven strikeouts and permitted five singles in 5 2/3 innings.
No. 9 batter Joseph Redfield greeted lefty reliever Gavi Coldiron by pummeling a deep fly ball to right that initially had the look of a grand slam, but Garcia made an athletic catch near the fence to end the inning.
MR. RELIABLE: Temple College sophomore right-hander Nathan Medrano delivers a pitch to Midland batter Cameron Dayton during the first inning of the Leopards' 5-3 victory against the Chaparrals in Friday afternoon's NJCAA Region V tournament game at McLennan in Waco. Although Medrano didn't collect his ninth win of the season, the Houston signee gave TC (38-14) another effective performance by pitching 6 1/3 innings and allowing five hits as coach Craig McMurtry's Leopards ended their five-game losing streak. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Medrano let out a self-motivating yell after he struck out Garcia looking to end the sixth, but Midland came back at Temple with full force in the seventh. With one out, Medrano hit Colby Standard with a pitch for the second time on the day, prompting McMurtry to make a change on the mound.
“His pitch count got up to 96, and I could tell he was getting a little bit tired,” McMurtry said about Medrano, who had three strikeouts and allowed five hits in 6 1/3 innings. “It's hot out here today and you could tell when he started to struggle.”
Said Jackson: “Without Medrano doing what he did, we don't win that game. It was very big on him, no matter if he got the W or not.”
Lefty Diego Fernandez came in for Temple, but pinch hitter Roman Thompson roped a single and Garrett Williams chopped a single to load the bases with one out. Cameron Dayton then drilled a single to left that brought in one run to make it 3-2, but when Thompson also tried to score on the play, the charging Jackson fired an accurate, in-the-air strike from approximately 200 feet away to catcher Diaz, who tagged Thompson out to keep TC ahead in dramatic fashion.
“(Shortstop) Seth Stephenson told me to keep my head up and that the next play was coming to me, so I was prepared for it,” Jackson said. “I'm not going to lie – I was actually hoping for a fly ball so it would make it a little easier. But I was 100 percent prepared for the ball coming to me, and it did.”
Added McMurtry about Jackson's clutch throw: “You've got to just let it go. You've got a chance because the ball was hit pretty hard, and Andre came in and fielded it clean and made a nice throw and Sammy handled it, which is not always that easy. That was big. (Jackson's arm) is not a cannon, but it's got good carry on it and he's done a good job for us out there.”
After Jackson's stellar throw, Pratt relieved Fernandez and allowed Wulfert's RBI single to right that created a 3-3 deadlock. A two-out walk to Gibson loaded the bases with Chaps, but Pratt got Huertz to ground out to end the threat.
Blomquist started Temple's eighth with a single up the middle and took second on a wild pitch. He still was on second following a lineout and a popup, but Jackson then delivered another crucial performance. He drove a Jarek Wells pitch into right for a single that brought home Blomquist and pushed the Leopards back into the lead at 4-3, causing their dugout to erupt in celebration as Jackson pumped his arms at first base.
“I was thinking we needed a base hit to the right side of the field. We had (Blomquist) on second base and I knew a base hit would score him,” said Jackson, a part-time starter who entered the day batting .267 with 16 RBI. “My biggest thing was to hit the ball where no one else was – just get it in the green (grass).”
MUCH-NEEDED RELIEF: Temple College freshman reliever Davis Pratt delivers a pitch to Midland batter Luke Bumpus and Leopards catcher Sammy Diaz during the eighth inning of TC's 5-3 win over the Chaparrals on Friday in the teams' NJCAA Region V tournament opener at Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. Pratt (3-0) recorded four strikeouts while pitching the final 2 1/3 innings as Temple (38-14) charged into Saturday's 2 p.m. battle against 15th-ranked McLennan (38-16) in the Highlanders' home ballpark. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Pratt (3-0) struck out two in the Midland eighth and recorded the other out by stopping Standard's hard comebacker with his backside before grabbing the ball and throwing to first.
Temple added a valuable insurance run in the ninth against Luis Rodriguez. Redfield chopped an infield single and tagged up to reach second on Stephenson's deep flyout to left. With two outs, ball four to Clark Henry sailed to the backstop and Redfield ran to third.
But instead of simply stopping at first, Henry had no hesitation as he made a big turn and ran toward second. After hurrying back to grab the ball, catcher Gibson made a low throw toward second that was not handled cleanly, allowing the fleet-footed Redfield to sprint across the plate for a 5-3 Temple lead.
“The extra run we got on the ball four wild pitch, we've worked on it and we actually talked about that yesterday,” McMurtry said. “It's, 'Hey, if we get in that situation and nobody goes to the middle of the field, just keep running and if the catcher lets it go, then pull up so you don't get tagged out and hopefully the guy scores. And when you have somebody like Redfield that can run, that helps.”
In the Midland ninth, Pratt struck out Williams with a fastball and Dayton with a changeup, both looking, before walking Wulfert. That brought up the burly Gibson (six homers this season) as the potential tying run, but his well-struck fly ball to center was easily caught by Redfield to complete the Leopards' hard-fought victory – and their first win in almost two weeks.
“When Davis has gotten his opportunities here in the last part of the season, he's done a good job,” McMurtry said of Pratt. “Midland has a good team and those guys hit the ball hard. Once we got the lead, that was big for him to give us those 2 1/3 innings.”
Added Jackson about another hero for TC: "Davis was big. He stepped up. Love him.”
NJCAA Region V Tournament
Temple College 5, Midland 3
Temple 200 001 011 – 5 8 0
Midland 000 100 200 – 3 9 3
Temple: Nathan Medrano, Diego Fernandez (7), Davis Pratt (7) and Sammy Diaz. Midland: Bo Blessie, Gavi Coldiron (6), Jarek Wells (7), Luis Rodriguez (9) and Jared Gibson. W – Pratt (3-0). L – Wells (3-1). HR – M: Tyler Wulfert (6). 2B – M: Caleb Huertz.
Highlights – TC: Medrano three strikeouts, five hits allowed in 6 1/3 innings; Pratt four strikeouts, one hit allowed in 2 1/3 innings; Andre Jackson 2-for-4, go-ahead RBI single in eighth inning, steal, threw out potential tying run from left field in seventh; Dylan Blomquist 2-for-3, walk, two runs; Joseph Redfield 2-for-3, run; Travis Chestnut run-scoring single, two stolen bases, run; Seth Stephenson stolen base, run; Cole Payne RBI; M: Blessie seven strikeouts, five hits allowed in 5 2/3 innings; Wulfert 2-for-4, solo home run, RBI single, walk, steal; Cameron Dayton RBI single; Colby Standard 1-for-2, hit by pitch twice, run; Gibson 1-for-3, two walks.
Records – Temple 38-14; Midland 28-15.
Notes – Temple wins opening game of four-team, double-elimination NJCAA Region V tournament at McLennan Community College's Bosque River Ballpark in Waco; TC will play No. 15-ranked and top-seeded McLennan (38-16) in the winners-bracket game at 2 p.m. Saturday; Midland will play Clarendon (30-21) in an elimination game at 10 a.m. Saturday.