FRUSTRATING WEEK: TC pitching falters as North Central sweeps No. 20 Leopards to start conference
Temple College freshman Hogan Heller hits a third-inning single against North Central Texas pitcher Brandon O'Neill during the 20th-ranked Leopards' 11-6 loss to the Lions in Saturday's first game at Danny Scott Sports Complex. North Central won the second game 17-5 to complete a four-game sweep of TC to begin the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference schedule. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The first part of Temple College’s baseball season was full of success and good feelings. A 14-3 record that featured three consecutive walk-off wins against Odessa last week catapulted the Leopards to No. 20 in the NJCAA Division I rankings and gave them strong momentum entering conference play.
This week, however, jubilation quickly devolved into frustration.
TC began its Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference season with two losses to North Central Texas on Wednesday in Gainesville – 7-6 and 11-1 in six innings.
Things certainly didn’t get any better for the Leopards in their NTJCAC home opener on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon at Danny Scott Sports Complex.
Temple’s pitchers struggled to contain the hot-hitting Lions as North Central built large leads early in both games and beat the Leopards 11-6 and 17-5, seizing a stunning sweep of the four-game series.
“You’re trying to get off to a good start in conference and you’re 14-3, but when you go into conference you’re 0-0 so everything starts over, and we didn’t step up to the challenge, basically,” said longtime Temple head coach Craig McMurtry, who was ejected for arguing a call to end the fifth inning of Game 2. “I thought we were ready. That’s my fault as a coach for not having them ready enough.
“I’m thinking they got a little overconfident with what we had done, especially after the three games when we beat Odessa. All of a sudden you jump into conference and you think it’s just going to keep going, but you have to earn everything. And we didn’t earn anything.”
TC sophomore center fielder Joseph Redfield said he had no indication entering the week that his Leopards (14-7) – who have followed a seven-game winning streak with a five-game skid – weren’t prepared to keep playing high-level ball in their first of eight conference series.
“No, I really didn’t. I mean, we were all riding the wave of Odessa and coming into the week confident – confident in our abilities, confident in the work we’ve been putting in,” said Redfield, whose five hits Saturday included a two-run home run in Game 1 and a double in each game. “It just came down to execution, I’d say more on the offensive side than the pitching side.
“We definitely need to step up our game and help our pitchers out. Getting runners in scoring position, we’ve been doing good, but we haven’t found ways (this week) to produce the way we’re capable of.”
However, former major league pitcher McMurtry said his men on the mound needed to do a much better job against the bats of North Central (13-11, 4-0), whose balanced offense erupted for 39 runs in the final three games of the series.
On Saturday, freshman left-hander Dash Albus (1-1) was relieved in the third inning of Game 1 and freshman righty Carter Poulson (1-3) was pulled after failing to record an out in the second inning of Game 2. Overall, the Lions compiled three six-run innings and a four-run frame.
“The biggest takeaway from the four games is we didn’t pitch very well, at all. We’d been throwing strikes, we’d been mixing it up. We didn’t make quality pitches, and I’ll give their hitters credit as far as squaring a lot of balls up. They had a great four games against us,” said McMurtry, whose defense committed three errors in each game Saturday. “Our pitching just didn’t really give us a great opportunity to win games. Our starters had been pretty solid, and the guys we’re bringing out of the pen had been doing a good job. It didn’t happen in these four games at all.
“We made some errors up there, and we made some errors in the first game (today). Of course, I didn’t see the last part of (Game 2). We prolonged innings and gave them extra opportunities, and then we don’t make pitches. You get down early in these games and it’s tough to come back, even though we’ve come back in some games that have been close games. Hitting-wise, you’re kind of battling uphill the whole day and the whole week.”
For the Leopards, frustration boiled over into anger during the bottom of the fifth inning in the series finale.
Back in the third inning of Saturday’s opener, TC trailed 5-1 but had the bases loaded when freshman cleanup batter Colby Christian launched a high fly ball down the left field line for potentially a game-tying grand slam. The plate umpire ruled that the ball sailed just foul, but McMurtry walked out to the plate area and took issue with his less-than-demonstrative call.
The same umpire was at first base in Game 2 as Temple trailed 8-3 in the fifth. With Raithen Malone on first with one out, speedy left-handed batter Redfield chopped a ground ball to the second baseman, whose throw to second forced out Malone. Although Redfield appeared to clearly step on first before the relay throw arrived, the umpire called the Sam Houston State signee out for an inning-ending double play.
Temple assistant and first base coach Nathan Train immediately and vehemently argued with the umpire before returning to his dugout, from which McMurtry already had emerged to argue the call himself. The Leopards’ 24th-season skipper got up close and personal with the umpire and continued to vociferously dispute the call until the umpire ejected him.
After McMurtry offered a few more choice words, TC fans gave him a standing ovation on his way back to the dugout and eventually out of the ballpark for the final four innings, during which veteran assistant coach Frank Kellner guided the Leopards.
“I said something after the call in the first game when he was behind the plate (on Christian’s would-be homer). I thought at that point, with the call (against Redfield) at first base, I had to say something,” McMurtry said. “If nothing else, just try to get the guys motivated, which obviously didn’t work. But you’ve got to come out and say something. He was right to throw me out. I figured that was going to happen.”
Because of his ejection, McMurtry must sit out the first game of Temple’s home doubleheader against non-conference opponent Blinn at 3 p.m. Monday.
Redfield, who’s batting .415 with 10 stolen bases, said the controversial call pushed the Leopards over the edge late in a trying week that already had tested their patience.
“Yeah, it definitely did. That was frustrating, for sure,” Redfield said. “I tried to keep a level head and let my coaches handle it. I just walked back to the dugout. We’re already down on numbers anyway. I didn’t want to risk getting thrown out of the game. We were still in it.”
In Wednesday’s first game at North Central, center fielder Redfield collided with sophomore right fielder Clark Henry on a fly ball to the gap. Redfield emerged with only a banged-up elbow on his left (non-throwing) arm, but Henry suffered breaks in his eye socket and cheekbone. McMurtry said Texas-San Antonio signee Henry, one of TC’s most experienced and dangerous hitters, is expected to miss six to eight weeks of action.
“We’ve got several guys who are out, but everybody deals with injuries and stuff,” said McMurtry, whose squad is without returning starting third baseman Ty Tilson and pitchers Marcus Mott and Kolby Wilson for the season and expects Purdue-signed pitcher Davis Pratt to return soon from injury.
“One thing I mentioned after the game is that no one’s feeling sorry feel sorry for us right now,” Redfield said. “We’re going to have to earn everything. We’ve got to come out firing on all cylinders, even on the practice field. We’ve still got 28 games left in conference, and who says we can’t win out and win the next 28?”
Albus and TC trailed only 1-0 through two innings in the seven-inning opener, but North Central took control by scoring four runs in the third against Albus and reliever Hagen Rose (Troy). The Lions then blew the game open with a six-run fourth against Rose and Brandon Taylor to move ahead 11-1.
“All of a sudden you give up a six-run inning and a four-run inning in the first game and a six-spot in this (second) game . . . you give up big innings, I mean, it’s tough to stay in the game,” McMurtry said. “I don’t want to say the guys give up, because they don’t, but it’s just tough.”
After hitting a single in the third and scoring on a sacrifice fly by Texas A&M signee Travis Chestnut, Redfield followed Malone’s double by hammering a two-run home run – his first college homer – to right-center to make it 11-3.
Christian, Zane Spinn (Holland) and Malone delivered RBI singles in the seventh, but Ulises Tovar struck out pinch hitter Chris Morrow with the bases loaded to seal North Central’s 11-6 win.
Poulson pitched a perfect first to start the nine-inning finale, but he ran into big trouble in the second as the Lions’ first seven batters either hit singles or walked. The first six of them eventually scored for a 6-0 advantage and sophomore lefty Mason Brandenberger relieved Poulson.
Temple responded in its half of the second to make it 6-3. Sam Houston State signee Spinn drew a one-out walk before Chestnut knocked a two-run homer to right center. Kyle Gates then doubled and scored on a single to center by freshman catcher and Temple Wildcats product Bryan Williams.
However, North Central expanded its lead to 8-3 with a two-run fourth. TC sophomore lefty reliever Evans Hendricks struck out seven in 3 2/3 innings and Spinn tripled and scored in the seventh, but Harrison Griffith greeted Leopards righty Jace Walker with a two-run homer to left in the eighth to make it 11-4.
The Lions then dented the Leopards’ depleted bullpen for a six-run ninth on their way to a 17-5 victory and the four-game sweep.
Temple’s open date in the 32-game NTJCAC schedule arrives this upcoming week. The Leopards host Blinn for two games Monday afternoon and Navarro for one game Thursday afternoon. TC returns to conference play March 23 with a home doubleheader against Cisco.
“I think it comes at a good time to refocus. We’re not just going cold turkey for a week. We’re still playing good outside competition,” Redfield said. “I think that’ll spark a fire under us and help us build going into our next week of conference.”
McMurtry said he will lean on his experienced players to help get the Leopards' season back on track.
“The sophomores are going to have to set the standard for what we’re trying to do, and they understand that it’s a long conference season. We’ve got 28 more conference games left, but we’ve put ourselves in a hole immediately,” he said. “It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. We’re hoping that those guys can keep the ship straight and not let things go downhill. We’ll just get back at it this next week. We’re going to have to regroup and figure it out real fast.”
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