Like they did throughout the regular season, the Western Nevada College Wildcats won their Region 18 baseball tournament against Salt Lake, 5-4, on Thursday in Henderson by a number of players filling their roles.
Matt Young set the tone by throwing five scoreless innings. Chad Bell delivered a two-out, two-run single to provide some breathing room. Abe Yagi blasted only his second home run of the season, but his insurance run turned out to be the difference. Casey Cornwell executed a bunt that broke a scoreless tie and led to a bigger inning. Catcher Sam Salyers threw out a Bruin trying to get back to second base and another who was trying to steal second. Lastly, Ty Fox threw strikes when absolutely necessary to put out a nearly lethal eighth-inning Bruin rally that sealed the Wildcat win.
Those collective efforts propelled WNC (39-17 overall) into a winners' bracket showdown with top-seeded College of Southern Nevada at noon Friday. The Coyotes scored two runs in the ninth inning to rally past Colorado Northwestern, 10-9, in the game preceding the Salt Lake-WNC matchup.
Youg provided the Wildcats with a quality start, working 6 1/3 innings. He gave up seven hits, one earned run in his 94-pitch outing. Young struck out four and walked one.
"An incredible start," WNC coach D.J. Whittemore said. "You want to talk about somebody that's shouldering the pressure of the entire organization and the entire season, and the way Matt responded, he was dynamite."
Young (8-5) said his goal was to pitch deeper into the game than Barlow, who lasted five innings.
"I didn't expect him to throw nine innings and I knew that they didn't have as good of a pen as we did," Young said. "If I could last longer than him, I knew we were going to win."
Both teams left scoring opportunities on the bases in the first three innings. With Barlow not finding the strike zone consistently, the patient-hitting Wildcats were able to draw four walks in the first two innings. But WNC left two runners on base in the first and three more in the second.
But the Wildcats capitalized on the free passes in the fourth inning as Barlow's pitch count surpassed 100. Bradley Lewis and Daniel Nist took walks to start the rally, then Casey Cornwell popped up a bunt in front of home plate. Catcher Cameron Benson missed a diving attempt to catch the ball and Barlow airmailed his throw over the first baseman's head, enabling Lewis to cross the plate and Nist and Cornwell to move into scoring position. Barlow appeared to limit the damage with a couple of hits, but Chad Bell hit a flair just over the head of third baseman Trevor Peterson to score both Nist and Cornwell for a 3-0 Wildcat lead.
"Barlow doesn't give up a lot of hits periods, so we needed to maximize (our scoring chances)," Whittemore said. "Chad fouled off two pitches with two strikes, then got a ball in play. You get rewarded for putting the ball in play with two strikes."
Salt Lake failed to take advantage of their early scoring chances against Young. The Bruins produced four hits in the first three innings but left five runners on base.
Young found a groove in the fourth inning, striking out two Bruins, while Salyers threw out Kam Lane trying to steal second base.
Mitch Cavanagh doubled in Salt Lake's first run in the sixth, but DJ Peters answered in the bottom of the inning with a DJ Peters sacrifice fly for a 4-1 lead.
Salt Lake took advantage of an error by Peters in the seventh to score an unearned run, but Yagi took a pitch over the left-field fence to restore his team's three-run edge.
In the eighth, Fox extinguished a Salt Lake comeback by striking out Nic Roberts with the bases loaded and WNC holding on to a 5-4 lead. Fox relieved Jordan Dreibelbis with one out, two runs already in and runners on second and third bases. Fox walked his first batter, Benson, and fell behind Roberts 2-0 before finding his command to bring the count even. His inside fastball missed high before he finished off the pivotal strikeout to leave the bases full.
"When those situations come up, I just try to play my game," said Fox, whose fastball was clocked at 92 mph. "In those situations you don't want to show up anybody or show that you're not feeling it. You just have to keep a stone face."
In the ninth, Fox surrendered a leadoff single to Mitch Berryhill. The Wildcats diffused the rally when Bell cleanly picked a sharp groundball by Skyler Mahoney, starting a 5-4-3 double play.
"No one has ever accused Ty of not loving his teammates. He wants to win for his teammates," Whittemore said. "It's fun to get behind guys like that."
In the latest poll released by the National Junior College Athletic Association, the Wildcats are ranked for the first time this season. They are tied for 28th, receiving one vote after taking two of three games from College of Southern Nevada last week. The Coyotes are ranked 15th.