LEOPARDS DENIED AGAIN: No. 5 McLennan extends mastery of TC as Rodriguez's diving catch seals sweep
TAKING IT THE OTHER WAY: Temple College designated hitter Caleb Hill slices a single to left field against McLennan pitcher Devin Bennett during the fifth inning of the Leopards' 2-1 loss to the fifth-ranked Highlanders in Wednesday afternoon's second game at Danny Scott Sports Complex. Hill and Kyle Gates each had three of TC's nine hits on the day, but defending national champion McLennan (34-9-1) – a 4-0 winner in Game 1 – swept the NTJCAC doubleheader to improve to 19-3 in conference play and drop the Leopards (26-17) to 9-13. The rivals will play another twinbill on Saturday at noon in Waco. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
As hungry as the Temple College baseball team was to win at least one home game Wednesday against rival McLennan Community College, the Leopards did not expect to be given any help by the defending national champion.
Not only did the fifth-ranked and conference-leading Highlanders not give TC any assistance; they also took something away exactly when the fourth-place Leopards threatened to finally break through on a windswept afternoon at Danny Scott Sports Complex.
McLennan kept Temple scoreless for the doubleheader’s first 15 innings, including a 4-0 win in the seven-inning opener as towering pitcher Will Carsten dominated by firing a three-hitter with nine strikeouts.
But after Raithen Malone’s run-scoring single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning cut TC’s Game 2 deficit to 2-1, the Leopards had real hope of finding a way to salvage a much-needed split.
However, that’s when McLennan made the kind of clutch play that’s helped it control its matchups against Temple in recent seasons.
With Malone on second base as the potential tying run, pinch hitter Hogan Heller ripped a line drive to the gap in left-center field that appeared destined to hit open grass for a 2-2 game, but left fielder Elijah Rodriguez cut across, laid out and made a diving, backhanded catch to secure the Highlanders’ 2-1 victory in dramatic fashion for the doubleheader sweep.
After Temple fell to 0-10 against its Waco-based nemesis during the last three seasons, longtime Leopards head coach Craig McMurtry – a former star pitcher for McLennan – credited the Highlanders for being such a difficult opponent to defeat.
“They’re a team that’s not going to beat themselves. They don’t beat themselves. They make the plays that they need to make,” McMurtry said after his Leopards (26-17) – who swept Hill in a crucial four-game series last week to move into a tie for fourth place – dropped to 9-13 in the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference with 10 games remaining.
“They turned double plays, made some nice plays at second and short and on that last play the guy makes a diving catch. If that ball gets by him, you’ve got a run and a triple. But he makes the play and the game’s over. So they don’t beat themselves, and that’s the mark of a good team. Today was disappointing in the fact that we knew what we had to do, and they just played better than we did.”
The Leopards lost despite solid performances by their starting pitchers: sophomore right-hander Mason Bryant in Game 1 and freshman lefty Dawson Tourney in Game 2.
Temple sophomore right fielder Kyle Gates, who produced three of his team’s nine hits, said he’s confident the Leopards will recover and be ready for their doubleheader at noon Saturday at McLennan’s Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. TC must grab at least one win to avoid getting swept again by the machine-like Highlanders (34-9-1, 19-3 NTJCAC).
“I think we can bounce back from it. We’ve got a good group of guys and we’ll come back and battle. We’ll flush it and roll on,” said Gates, who walked in the ninth and scored on Malone’s single. “We’ve got to start with one game (Saturday). The first game is the one that counts. It’s big to get that first game, and two (victories) would be awesome.
“There’s just a chip on our shoulder from the past few years. You don’t want to go three years in a row losing to these guys, so we’ve got to find a way to win one. This is one of the biggest games and one of the biggest series for us.”
Head coach Mitch Thompson’s McLennan squad compiled 16 hits and Carsten, Game 2 starter Devin Bennett and Nick Greaney posted a combined 19 strikeouts, but it was fitting for the Highlanders that one final outstanding defensive play saved them on an error-free day for their fielders.
“Elijah’s been playing as a part-time guy for us. He just keeps working and I’m proud of him for having the courage to go make that play and lay out and do it,” Thompson said about Rodriguez’s game-ending catch, after which he was swarmed by his celebrating teammates. “That’s the thing. The game looked like it’s in hand and you’re feeling good about things, but it’s never over until it’s over in baseball. These guys are out here competing hard, so I’m proud to get out of here with two wins.”
With a strong, sustained wind of approximately 25 mph blowing both in and from right to left throughout the afternoon, pitchers had the advantage because even hard-hit balls in the air got knocked down by the breeze. All nine of Temple’s hits in the twinbill were singles, while McLennan’s offense managed to record one double in the opener and two in the finale.
“It was pretty tough. I think the pitching all around on both sides was pretty good. The wind was the biggest factor. At this ballpark it’s always different every day with the wind blowing like this,” Gates said. “You’ve just got to find the holes. The holes are always going to be there. You’ve just got to change your approach to the conditions and try to stay in those holes. That’s going to be the best bet. You can’t hit balls up in the air.”
Added McMurtry: “We’ve talked about it since Monday, and they know. We play here all the time. You’ve got to be able to keep the ball in the holes and hit line drives. Gates got a few hits and Malone got that hit, but if you get the ball up in the air it’s not going anywhere. (McLennan) squared some balls up that didn’t go anywhere. The approach is always the same here with the wind blowing in. You’ve got to keep the ball hard on the ground.”
Aided by the pitcher-friendly weather, McLennan freshman right-handed starters Carsten (6-1) and Bennett (7-1) attacked the strike zone relentlessly with well-placed fastballs and sharp breaking balls.
“I think we’ve got quality arms, no question, but you give them a little bit of an equalizer effect with a 25 mph wind blowing in and if you don’t beat yourself, they’re going to be tough to beat,” Thompson said about Carsten and Bennett. “They’ve got quality stuff, they fill it up, they pound the zone and they’re very competitive, so I loved the way that they both went after it. Both guys went through seven innings, so it was really two well-pitched games.”
Contending with two pitchers at or near the top of their game, Temple’s lineup – missing speedy sophomore center fielder Joseph Redfield (strained hamstring) for the second straight week – couldn’t scratch a run across until the day’s 16th and final inning.
“We didn’t give ourselves a whole lot of opportunities, especially the first game. We didn’t get guys on base. Carsten’s a really good pitcher and we knew it was going to be tough against him,” McMurtry said. “You give up three or four runs and you’re behind the 8-ball. He’s not going to walk guys, he’s got velocity, he’s got a breaking ball and he throws strikes.
“Bennett in the second game was kind of the same thing. He threw a lot of strikes. If you know you’re going to get the (strike) call down or the call out, then you’ve got to keep throwing it there and take advantage of that. We just didn’t get a lot of opportunities, and then when we did get a couple of opportunities we didn’t capitalize as far as getting the hit when we needed it.”
The 6-foot-7 Carsten carved out a 10-1 record last season to help McLennan win its first Junior College World Series championship since 1983. The big, fluid Oklahoma signee was in full control in Game 1 against Temple. The only runners he allowed came on Caleb Hill’s first-inning single and sixth-inning singles by pinch hitter Gates and Travis Chestnut. Carsten struck out the side in the first and third and never let a Leopards runner advance past second base.
“Will’s our ace. He was really good last year and had 10 wins, and he’s a big, physical guy who just keeps getting better,” Thompson, whose 2021 team went 6-0 against TC's 39-16 club, said about Carsten. “‘I’m here to dominate you’ – that’s the way he attacks it. It’s not showy, but that’s his mentality. I promise you that’s what’s going on in his head.”
McLennan grabbed control of the opening game by scoring three runs in the second inning against the hard-throwing Bryant (4-2). Katcher Halligan sliced a leadoff double to left field and Rodriguez hit a one-out single to left.
Bryant struck out Hank Bard, but No. 9 batter Izzy Lopez – the returning starting shortstop from the Highlanders’ national championship squad – chopped a two-run single into center for a 2-0 lead. MCC’s advantage grew to 3-0 when Marquis Jackson ripped an RBI single to left.
Bryant responded by facing the minimum in the third through fifth innings, but the Highlanders padded their lead in the sixth. Cole Fontenelle hit a leadoff single and reached second on an outfield error, went to third on Halligan’s groundout and scored on Daniel Altman’s sacrifice fly to left for a 4-0 game.
Carsten retired 15 consecutive Leopards before pinch hitter Gates singled to center with one out in the sixth. However, Gates was erased when he got too far off first and was thrown out at second. Chestnut singled with two outs in the sixth, but Carsten retired TC’s final four batters – including three hard-hit balls in the seventh – to complete McLennan’s shutout.
Bryant struck out six and walked two while permitting seven hits in six innings.
“Bryant had the one inning where he gave up three runs. They hit some holes and hit the ball down the line, but overall he threw pretty good,” McMurtry said.
SOUTHPAW SLINGER: Temple College freshman left-hander Dawson Tourney delivers a pitch to McLennan batter Izzy Lopez during the fourth inning of the Leopards' 2-1 loss to the No. 5-ranked Highlanders in Wednesday's second game at Danny Scott Sports Complex. Tourney (4-4) allowed one run in five innings before lefty Mason Brandenberger pitched the final four innings. Temple had the tying run on second base in the ninth inning when McLennan left fielder Elijah Rodriguez made a diving catch of Hogan Heller's line drive to end the game and secure the Highlanders' sweep. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
In the nine-inning finale, Tourney (4-4) pitched in and out of trouble but essentially performed his task well by mixing his pitches well and limiting McLennan to one run in five innings before fellow southpaw Mason Brandenberger relieved him to begin the sixth.
The Highlanders took a 1-0 lead in the third, with some help from the Leopards. A Tourney pitch hit Ty Johnson to start the inning. Third baseman Malone fielded Fontenelle’s grounder and threw to second baseman Chestnut for the force out, but Chestnut’s ensuing throw to first sailed high and into MCC’s dugout, sending Fontenelle to second. With two outs, Altman popped an RBI single into center for a 1-0 McLennan edge.
Gates hit a pair of sharp singles as Temple advanced runners to second base in the second and fifth innings, but Bennett escaped both predicaments, including getting Dawson French to ground into a double play in the fifth.
“Bennett’s been throwing the ball really well and attacking the zone with multiple pitches,” Thompson said. “I knew it was going to be a pitching-and-defense day, so we were trying to steal some bags and trying to bunt some guys over to get some guys in scoring position to have more opportunities. We had better success doing that offensively than Temple did, but the thing that was impressive was just our pitching. I mean, we’re not walking you. We’re coming right at you.”
Altman and Lopez greeted Brandenberger with back-to-back singles to start the MCC sixth, but right fielder Gates fired an in-the-air strike to Malone at third to cut down Altman.
TC’s Chris Morrow led off the sixth with a walk and Gates bunted him to second, but Bennett struck out Andre Jackson on three consecutive breaking balls and, with Morrow on third after a wild pitch, retired Malone on a flyout to shallow right.
An ill-timed breakdown by the Leopards’ defense in the eighth helped the Highlanders add a vital insurance run. Halligan roped a leadoff double down the line in right and advanced to third on Altman’s groundout. Brandenberger struck out Lopez looking with a sweeping backdoor slider, then Rodriguez hit a chopper to second that should have gotten Temple out of the inning.
Chestnut fielded the ball cleanly but made an errant throw that first baseman Morrow couldn’t dig out of the dirt, allowing Halligan to score for a 2-0 game. It was part of a frustrating day for Texas A&M signee Chestnut, who had a single in each game but struck out five times and offset his several stellar defensive plays by committing two throwing errors.
“Tourney threw a good game and Brandenberger came in and did a really nice job of keeping them there. If we don’t make the error late, it keeps it a one-run game,” McMurtry said. “(Chestnut) gets a big hop, you’ve got to throw it and he comes over the top and plants it down in the dirt. He is (frustrated) offensively and defensively. He’s got to bounce back.”
Chestnut and Hill hit two-out singles in the eighth against reliever Greaney and Zane Spinn (Holland) had an opportunity to break Temple’s scoreless drought, but his high fly ball down the line in left was caught easily near the fence.
After Brandenberger finished his four-inning stint with a perfect ninth, the Leopards made their final push. Gates walked with one out and went to second on a wild pitch as Greaney struck out pinch hitter Colby Christian. Malone then stroked a two-out single into right to drive in Gates for Temple’s first run in 16 innings, slicing the Leopards’ deficit to 2-1.
With pinch hitter Heller at the plate and Redfield in the on-deck circle for a potential pinch-hitting appearance, a balk sent Malone to second to put the tying run in scoring position. Heller drove Greaney’s pitch into the left-center gap for a potential run-scoring hit, but the wind held the ball up just long enough for a sprinting, sprawling Rodriguez to dive and catch the ball before it could hit the ground. The Highlanders ran out to greet Rodriguez after his game-saving grab completed another McLennan sweep against the rival Leopards.
“We made some nice plays in the outfield, and our infield play was errorless,” Thompson said. “You’re going to have to put two or three hits together, and our defense didn’t crack either. Theirs cracked to give us our second run, and all of a sudden it’s a 2-1 win.”
McMurtry clearly was frustrated by Temple’s inability to cash in on the scoring chances it did create against his alma mater's strong stable of pitchers.
“Offensively we didn’t give ourselves a lot of opportunities, and when we did get a guy on, we didn’t get him in. There were a few opportunities to do that, and you’ve got to find a way,” McMurtry said. “You can’t just sit there and go, ‘Well, they’ve got a good team and their pitchers are good.’ You’ve got to find a way to get something done.”
The Leopards have 10 games remaining as they seek to earn the NTJCAC’s fourth and final berth in next month’s NJCAA Region V Tournament at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Four-game series with Weatherford and Vernon loom, but first the Leopards know they need to find a way to record at least one win against McLennan – whom they haven’t defeated on the field since April 11, 2018 – on Saturday in Waco.
“We still have opportunities, and Saturday’s going to be a big day. We can’t lose a couple of games up there. We can’t,” McMurtry said, adding he's hopeful that Sam Houston State signee Redfield can return to the starting lineup next week against Weatherford. “If we do, we basically have to sweep the last two series. The plan is to get to 11 (wins) and you’ve got eight games left and you’ve still got to find a way to win games against Weatherford and Vernon. But we’ve been in that mode for the last three weeks.”
McMurtry said he plans to use sophomore righty Davis Pratt and freshman lefty Dash Albus as Temple’s starting pitchers Saturday, while Thompson said McLennan will counter with sophomore righty Wyatt Cheney and freshman righty Gray Harrison.
“It’ll be competitive as heck,” Thompson said. “We’re going to have to strap it on and go compete again.”
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