STILL SEARCHING: Jackson, TC prevail in extras, but 8-4 Ranger win continues Leopards' inconsistency
MAKING THE CONNECTION: Temple College second baseman and leadoff batter Travis Chestnut hits a single to center field against Ranger pitcher Gabriel Sevillano during the third inning of the Leopards' 8-4 loss in Game 2 of Saturday afternoon's conference doubleheader at Danny Scott Sports Complex. Texas A&M signee Chestnut had two hits and three walks in the doubleheader for the Leopards (21-15, 5-11), who won Game 1 3-2 in eight innings. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Saturday afternoon’s baseball doubleheader at sunny, windy Danny Scott Sports Complex essentially essentially served as a microcosm of Temple College’s up-and-down season, at least since the Leopards began conference play.
In Game 1 against a better-than-normal Ranger College team, TC demonstrated its resilience and ability to deliver in clutch situations.
A two-out fielding error allowed the Rangers to score the tying run in the seventh inning and force extra innings, but Zane Spinn slugged a leadoff double in the eighth before Andre Jackson ripped a game-winning single up the middle to give the Leopards a 3-2 victory.
In the doubleheader finale, however, Temple experienced the same shortcomings and frustrations that have prevented the Leopards from reaching their full potential during Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference competition.
After Ranger exploded for eight runs in the first four innings to build an 8-0 lead, TC displayed grit as it clawed back to get within 8-4 thanks largely to stellar relief pitching by Douglas Hendricks. But the Leopards couldn’t capitalize on multiple bases-loaded opportunities as the Rangers nailed down an 8-4 win to split the doubleheader and seize a 3-1 victory in the teams’ four-game series.
The disappointing twinbill split left Temple (21-15) with a 5-11 record at the halfway point of NTJCAC play, far from what head coach Craig McMurtry’s Leopards had expected and hoped for when they entered league action in early March with a 14-3 mark and a No. 20 national ranking.
With 16 conference games remaining, both Jackson and longtime TC assistant coach Frank Kellner know that anything less than a torrid closing stretch will leave the Leopards short of qualifying for a berth in the NJCAA Region V Tournament.
“Realistically, all you’ve got to do is look at our record. We’re at a point now where you’ve got to win all your games,” said Kellner, who filled in for McMurtry after the Leopards’ 24th-year skipper was ejected for arguing a call during the top of the first inning in Game 2. “As coaches, we’re going to work as hard as we can to put in them in situations, and you hope they catch fire.
“That’s really what it’s going to take, is these guys to catch on fire a little bit and do it for multiple games. When we play solid, we’re hard to beat, but it’s been too many in-between games.”
Sophomore left fielder Jackson, a key member of Temple’s 39-win club in 2021, said the Leopards must remain confident and quickly find a way to shore up their deficiencies before it’s too late to make a run at postseason play.
“It’s one pitch at a time, one inning of a time and try to win ’em all. We can’t afford to give any more. We’ve got to win a lot,” said Jackson, who produced a double, a single and an RBI in each game of the doubleheader. “We’ve got to bear down and fight. That’s it. That’s all it comes down to – never giving up and just believing in ourselves.”
Despite its struggles in conference, seventh-place Temple is only two games behind 7-9 squads Cisco, Hill and Weatherford for the NTJCAC’s fourth and final spot in May’s regional tournament at Texas Tech in Lubbock. The Leopards meet Hill in a crucial series next week, playing doubleheaders in Hillsboro on Wednesday and in Temple on Friday.
Meanwhile, Ranger (29-13, 14-6) is only one game behind No. 3-ranked McLennan for second place, with No. 20 Grayson a game ahead of MCC’s Highlanders, the defending national champions. Kellner said that according to a Ranger coach, the Rangers seek their first postseason trip in 37 years.
“Way better. They came out with more fight, more hunger. Credit to them,” Jackson said about Ranger, which defeated TC 6-0 and 4-1 on Wednesday in Ranger. “They did what they came here to do. Good for them.”
The scheduled seven-inning opener was a back-and-forth affair in which Temple never trailed but also never led by more than one run.
After sophomore right-hander and Purdue signee Davis Pratt pitched a scoreless first inning, the Leopards exhibited extra-base pop as they jumped out to a 1-0 advantage against Ranger righty Micah Forc. Leadoff man Joseph Redfield ripped a triple into the corner in right field, then with one out Caleb Hill lined an RBI double down the line in right.
Ranger responded in the second to create a 1-1 tie. Pratt walked EJ Alanis to start the inning and walked Sebastian Zayas with one out before each runner advanced one base on Kade Wood’s sacrifice bunt. Van Gupton Jr.’s single drove in Alanis, but a perfect-strike throw from Temple right fielder Colby Christian to catcher Bryan Williams cut down Zayas at home plate to end the inning.
The Leopards answered with a run in the third to regain the lead at 2-1. Texas A&M signee Travis Chestnut drew a one-out walk, took second on Hill’s bunt, went to third on a wild pitch and scored when Christian delivered a two-out RBI single to left.
Pratt got stronger as the game went on and faced one batter over the minimum in the third through fifth innings. An arm ailment had limited the hard-throwing Pratt to only three previous appearances this season.
“Davis had a very good outing, which is what we expect out of him. He did what he does. That’s him,” Jackson said about Pratt, who allowed four hits in five innings.
Added Kellner: “Pratt is what we’ve been hoping to get back. I wish we would’ve gotten him back at the beginning of conference. I think that might have made a difference.”
Freshman righty and Troy graduate Hagen Rose replaced Pratt to begin the sixth and used a double play to get out of that frame. After TC stranded a runner at third to end the sixth, Rose sought to save the win for Pratt, but Ranger did not comply.
Alanis cracked a leadoff double down the line in right and a passed ball sent pinch runner Kyle Meister to third. A groundout with the infield in and a flyout to right followed by Christian’s strong throw home kept Meister at third with two outs, yet the Leopards were unable to close out the game. Wood chopped Rose’s two-strike pitch to third base and the two-hop grounder got past freshman Raithen Malone into left for an error, tying the game 2-2. Rose then picked off Wood at first to end the threat.
Temple had runners at first and second with one out in the seventh, but reliever Caleb Bunch got pinch hitter Hogan Heller to ground into a double play, forcing the game into extra innings.
Unfazed, Rose (4-0) notched two strikeouts with sliders as he pitched a perfect eighth, setting the stage for TC’s winning push in the bottom half.
“Rose was not quite as sharp, but he showed some guts and fought his way through,” Kellner said.
Hitless in three previous trips, Holland grad and Sam Houston State signee Spinn powered a leadoff double to the right-center gap. Malone’s bunt moved Spinn to third, then Jackson rocketed the winning single through the middle and tossed his bat to the side before his teammates ran out to join him in celebrating the Leopards’ walk-off victory.
“Just hunt a strike, that’s it. That’s my approach no matter what – just hunt a strike and do something with it,” Jackson said, adding that “hit the pitcher” is his go-to swing thought in such pressure situations. “Everything else I can’t control. It’s see ball, hit ball.”
Said Jackson about Rose’s three-inning relief outing: “Hagen was big. He never gets out of control and always bounces back. That’s a big arm for us and he’s a great pitcher.”
It didn’t take long for the series finale – shortened from nine innings to seven because the opener went to extras – to take on a much different feel.
Gilberto Torres hit a one-out single against sophomore right-hander Carter Poulson in the Ranger first, then burly left-handed batter Alex Olivo launched a high fly ball to left that rode a strong, steady breeze over the fence for a home run and a 2-0 lead.
McMurtry swiftly jumped out of the third base dugout and vehemently argued with the home plate umpire, stating that Olivo passed Torres after the former rounded first base, in which case Torres’ run would count but Olivo’s would not and the batter would be called out, making it a 1-0 lead instead of 2-0.
The two umpires huddled to discuss the play but then ruled that the two-run homer stood, after which an irate McMurtry continued to yell at the plate ump, earning his ejection.
Said Kellner, TC’s third base coach: “I was not privy to see it. I was down and I was blocked. But everybody in our dugout that was up there on the fence saw that (Olivo) did cross (Torres). The umpires just happened to miss it. Without video replay, you’re never going to get that call. That was early in the game. It was a run, for sure, but always as a team you think you can overcome something.”
Temple College freshman left-hander Dash Albus delivers a pitch to Ranger's Kade Wood during the second inning of Saturday's second game at Danny Scott Sports Complex. The Leopards' offense cut an 8-0 deficit to 8-4 but left the bases loaded in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings as the Rangers won 8-4 to split the NTJCAC doubleheader and win the teams' four-game series 3-1. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Alas, Temple could not prevent Ranger from expanding its advantage. After Rangers lefty Gabriel Sevillano got a double-play grounder to strand Chestnut at third in the Leopards’ first at-bat, Poulson (1-5) was relieved by freshman lefty Dash Albus after his pitch hit Zayas to begin the second. Joshua Rodriguez’s run-scoring single, a Torres sacrifice fly and Olivo’s RBI double made it a 5-0 game.
The Rangers’ lead grew to 8-0, with Chris Kean flaring an RBI single in the third and Torres hitting an RBI double in the fourth before Jhanel Bautista added a run-scoring fielder’s choice.
Although Ranger was in complete control at that point, Hendricks relieved for Temple and the sophomore lefty proceeded to pitch 3 2/3 scoreless innings with six strikeouts, giving the Leopards the ability to mount a comeback.
“We did what we needed to do, starting with Doug Hendricks coming. It was several zeroes and he got us to the end," Kellner said. "He absolutely did his job and that was good to see."
Sevillano struck out five Leopards in the first three innings, but TC finally got to the small southpaw in the fourth for a three-run outburst. Heller hit a leadoff double to right and scored on Jackson’s double to deep left-center, then Spinn’s single to right drove in Jackson and Simon Larranaga for an 8-3 game.
Temple had the bases loaded with no outs after reliever Gentry Busch hit Luke Banister, but Banister got picked off at first and Chestnut struck out. After a walk, Christian popped up, allowing Ranger to elude further damage.
The Leopards again loaded the bases with one out in the fifth, but Joseph Wolf struck out Spinn looking. TC made it 8-4 when former Temple Wildcat Williams drew a bases-loaded walk, but Bunch entered and got Chestnut to fly out, preserving the Rangers’ four-run lead.
The Leopards threatened again in the sixth as Dawson French, Jackson and Hill singled to load the bases with two outs, but Eli Breeder escaped by striking out Malone looking with a knee-high fastball.
“We put some pressure on them. I think the hardest part for this group this year is we strike out too much in key situations,” Kellner said. “You play to get in those positions to excel, and we have some guys that are just not coming through. That leads to a tough loss.”
Temple has played without sophomore outfielder and Texas-San Antonio signee Clark Henry – an all-region designated hitter last season – since the first conference series, when the Leopards surprisingly were swept by North Central Texas. Kellner said Henry will miss the remainder of the season because of facial fractures he suffered when he collided with center fielder Redfield while pursuing a fly ball at North Central. Also, returning starting third baseman Ty Tilson has missed the entire season because of injury.
“As a team you want depth, because you don’t ever want to say, ‘Hey, we didn’t have the players where it’s next man up,’” Kellner said. “This year we don’t have at least two to three guys that you can count on right in the middle of the lineup, and I think that’s the difference between the 2021 team and the 2022 team.”
Hendricks struck out three of Ranger’s final four batters, but Breeder did the same for the Rangers as they earned the road split and the 3-1 series victory.
Although Temple now faces the daunting task of likely needing to win at least 12 or 13 of its final 16 conference games to make it to the regional tournament, Jackson believes that’s something the Leopards are capable of if their on-field execution can match their willpower.
“We never give up. We keep battling no matter what,” Jackson said. “You never know what could happen. Miracles happen every day."
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