STILL BATTLING: All-around play gives TC sweep vs. Vernon, keeping Leopards alive in postseason hunt
PARTY AT THE PLATE: Temple College's Chris Morrow is congratulated at home plate by Zane Spinn (right), Caleb Hill (15) and Andre Jackson (9) after Morrow's three-run home run during the first inning of the Leopards' 9-1, seven-inning win over Vernon in the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader at Danny Scott Sports Complex. It was Morrow's fourth homer for fifth-place TC, which earned a must-have sweep and moved to 13-17 in Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference play entering Saturday's regular-season finale at eighth-place Vernon. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
From the most realistic viewpoint, the Temple College baseball team’s best opportunity to qualify for next week’s NJCAA Region V Tournament in Lubbock probably evaporated late last Saturday afternoon in Weatherford.
Coach Craig McMurtry’s visiting Leopards had absorbed a 14-4, five-inning defeat in the doubleheader’s first game, but in the crucial finale they exploded for a seven-run ninth inning to turn a 13-8 deficit into a 15-13 lead.
That timely outburst had Temple poised to win the important conference series three games to one, but the Coyotes responded by taking advantage of defensive mistakes by the Leopards and scoring three runs in the ninth to seize a stunning 16-15 victory, making TC settle for a disappointing 2-2 split.
So instead of trailing Weatherford by only game in the battle for the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference’s fourth and final postseason berth and grabbing the potentially vital head-to-head tiebreaker edge, the Leopards entered the regular season’s final week three games behind the Coyotes and essentially needing a miraculous sequence of events to reach postseason play.
“That was a backbreaker and a heartbreaker at the same time,” McMurtry said Wednesday about TC’s frustrating, series-ending walk-off loss at Weatherford.
However, a new week presented a fresh opportunity for Temple to summon its best performance and keep its flickering hopes alive. In Wednesday afternoon’s doubleheader against eighth-place Vernon at Danny Scott Sports Complex, the Leopards forcefully took care of their first order of business.
Run-scoring hits by Zane Spinn and Andre Jackson keyed a pair of early two-run innings in the seven-inning opener for Temple, which rode the strong pitching of Mason Bryant and David Stich to a 5-1 victory over the Chaparrals.
The Leopards didn’t relax in the must-have finale, their last home game this season. Chris Morrow mashed a three-run home run to highlight a four-run first inning, Joseph Redfield ripped a three-run, inside-the-park homer in the sixth and Dawson Tourney delivered another sharp outing on the mound to lead TC to a 9-1, run-rule win in seven.
“It was obviously a positive day as far as everything,” McMurtry said after his Leopards (31-21) improved to 13-17 in NTJCAC play with two games remaining. “We swung the bats good in both games. The pitching was good, allowing two runs in 14 innings. Bryant and Tourney have been solid. We didn’t walk guys and the defense played well. It was a well-rounded day.”
Although the Leopards still need to win two games at Vernon on Saturday and have fourth-place Weatherford (14-14 in the NTJCAC) go 0-4 against sixth-place Cisco (10-18) in doubleheaders Thursday and Saturday, Temple came through in dominant fashion and kept itself afloat for at least one more day.
“These two wins are important, but we still have a big hill to climb,” said McMurtry, whose team won only one of its previous seven conference series and was swept by last-place North Central Texas and defending national champion McLennan, which clinched the league crown Wednesday with two wins against second-place Grayson. “The odds of Cisco sweeping Weatherford are slim, but our guys want to finish strong.
"We put ourselves in this position, but we’re going to play hard on Saturday at Vernon and try to finish in a positive way. We’re going to try to win two games up there, no matter what.”
THE HARD STUFF: Temple College sophomore right-hander Mason Bryant throws a fastball that strikes out Vernon's Alvaro Espinal looking with the bases loaded to end the second inning of the Leopards' 5-1 win in Wednesday's first game at Danny Scott Sports Complex. Bryant (6-2) notched five strikeouts and allowed four hits in four innings to earn the victory, and David Stich pitched the final three innings to record his first save. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Bryant began Temple’s series against Weatherford last Wednesday with nine strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, earning the win in a 10-3 home victory. With the Leopards in must-win mode against Vernon, the big sophomore right-hander produced another winning performance.
Against Vernon, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Bryant (6-2) allowed one hit in each of his four innings and issued four walks, but the former Texas Longhorn used five strikeouts and an error-free defense to limit the Chaparrals (19-31, 9-21) to one run, on a second-inning groundout.
McMurtry said the hard-throwing Bryant – his fastball can reach the mid-90s and is complemented by a sharp slider – was sick early this week but texted his head coach on Tuesday night that he felt strong enough to make his scheduled start.
“Mason began the season in a closer role, but injuries (to projected starting pitchers) forced us to make some decisions,” McMurtry said. “His stuff was good, but at times his biggest downfall was (not) throwing (enough) strikes.”
McMurtry added that although Bryant “hasn’t always been spot-on,” the pitcher’s contributions and competitive on-field persona have helped the Leopards remain alive in the postseason hunt.
After Bryant worked around Alvaro Espinal’s infield single to lead off Game 1, Temple’s offense quickly provided him with run support against Vernon righty Marcos Escalera.
Travis Chestnut ripped a leadoff single to center field and Caleb Hill sliced a single to left, then Holland graduate and fellow sophomore Spinn popped a single through the right side to drive in Texas A&M signee Chestnut for a 1-0 Leopards lead. Redfield, like Spinn a Sam Houston State signee, then brought in Hill with a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-0.
The Chaps answered back in the second, as Pierre-Emmanuel Planes and Dillon Flores wrapped walks around Jayden Hill’s double to left-center to load the bases with no outs. Sergio Ortiz’s groundout to second drove in Planes, but that proved to be Vernon’s lone run in the opener.
With runners at second and third with one out, Cameron Upchurch struck out swinging on a Bryant fastball. Emmanuel Rodriguez walked to load the bases again, but Bryant’s well-placed fastball on the outside corner struck out Espinal looking and Temple escaped the second with a 2-1 lead.
HIT AND RUN: Temple College sophomore outfielder Andre Jackson races out of the batter's box after hitting a run-scoring double to right field during the third inning of the Leopards' 5-1 win over Vernon in Wednesday's doubleheader opener at Danny Scott Sports Complex. Jackson has driven in 22 runs this season for TC after posting 21 RBI during the 2021 season. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
After Bryant got a flyout to strand a runner at third in the third, the Leopards gave themselves some breathing room. Redfield ripped a one-out single to center and Morrow walked. A frequent provider of clutch hits, sophomore outfielder Jackson came up with another one as he went to the opposite field with a double down the line in right to drive in Redfield for a 3-1 lead. Colby Christian followed with a sacrifice fly to center, bringing in Morrow for a 4-1 game.
Bryant got two more strikeouts as he pitched a scoreless fourth, working around a walk and an Upchurch single. TC then pushed its lead to 5-1 in the fourth as Spinn and Redfield hit consecutive two-out singles and a Vernon infielder made an errant throw, allowing Spinn to score on the unforced error.
Stich relieved Bryant to begin the fifth, and the 6-4, 240-pound freshman right-hander didn’t give Vernon much hope as he fired three scoreless innings. He permitted two hits and a walk and hit a batter, but the Chaps didn’t get a runner past second against him.
Two of Stich’s three strikeouts came in the seventh, including a sharp slider that froze Wade Van Der Bergh of South Africa to end the game. Stich, a Morehead State transfer, earned his first save for the three-inning stint.
SPINN ZONE: Temple College sophomore shortstop Zane Spinn drives a low pitch from Vernon's Marcos Escalera into right field in the first inning to bring in Travis Chestnut with the first run in the Leopards' 5-1 victory in Wednesday's doubleheader opener at Danny Scott Sports Complex. It was the 36th RBI this season for Holland graduate Spinn, a Sam Houston State signee. He also singled and scored in the fourth inning. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Needing a doubleheader sweep in its home finale, Temple again turned to the reliable Tourney. The freshman left-hander pitched well in his previous two starts against fourth-ranked McLennan and Weatherford, both in the Leopards’ home ballpark.
Tourney (6-4), from Bakersfield, California, shut out Vernon through five innings and didn’t allow a run until the Chaps scored one in the sixth.
“Dawson’s probably been as solid as anyone in his last three or four starts. He’s been good for us and kept us in those games,” McMurtry said, adding that the 6-foot, 190-pound Tourney – who also uses a slider and a changeup – has improved his fastball velocity from the low- to mid-80s to the upper 80s as the season has progressed.
After allowing a sharp two-out single to Australian Zak Skinner in the first inning, Tourney retired the next seven Chaps and struck out three of them – two on fastballs and one with a slider.
Temple’s offensive support of Tourney was ample and immediate. Speedy second baseman Chestnut began his final TC home game by driving a leadoff triple to the left-center gap against righty Chase Senecal. Hill then lined an RBI single to right for a 1-0 advantage, and Spinn – playing through a rib injury he suffered at Weatherford – shot a single into right to give the Leopards runners at the corners with no outs.
Senecal struck out cleanup batter Redfield with a fastball, but he wasn’t as successful in dealing with Morrow. TC’s left-handed-hitting freshman first baseman launched a Senecal offering over the wall in right for a three-run blast, his fourth homer this season, and a commanding 4-0 lead.
“Morrow’s one of those left-handed guys who can pull the ball with some power but can go the other way too,” McMurtry said.
Temple made it 5-0 in the fourth on a run-scoring groundout by freshman catcher and former Temple Wildcat Bryan Williams.
The Leopards put the game out of reach – literally – in the sixth with a four-run burst that expanded their lead to 9-1.
With two runners aboard, Redfield hit a sinking line drive that Vernon’s oncoming center fielder tried to catch but was unable to. The ball scooted past him and the fleet-footed Redfield – who entered the day batting .351 with three home runs – sprinted around the bases for an inside-the-park, three-run homer.
After Tourney started to lose some control during the sixth inning, freshman righty and Troy graduate Hagen Rose relieved him to begin the seventh and retired Vernon to end the game two innings early on the run rule as the Leopards finished with a 20-9 home record.
If Weatherford wins either of its two games at Cisco on Thursday, the Coyotes will secure a berth in the regional tournament at Texas Tech and Temple simply will be playing for pride in Saturday’s doubleheader at Vernon.
Either way, TC will go with sophomore righty Davis Pratt (2-1) in Game 1 as the Purdue signee aims to bounce back from a rough performance at Weatherford last Saturday. McMurtry said numerous pitchers, including lefties Mason Brandenberger and Dash Albus, will be needed in the nine-inning finale at Vernon – a game the optimistic Leopards still hope will pack some meaning in the postseason race.
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