D.J. Whittemore and his Western Nevada College Wildcats won't ever forget the comeback they pulled off against College of Southern Nevada on a sweltering Friday afternoon in Henderson.
Two outs away from a 7-5 defeat to the Region 18 baseball tournament hosts, five of the next six Wildcat hitters delivered hits as WNC rallied past the Coyotes, 9-7, to advance to Saturday's championship game.
"It's baseball. If you give up, you are foolish," Whittemore said. "We have so much respect for the quality of the ballclub for CSN, so for us to compete with them and come out victorious, it feels amazing."
Bradley Lewis deposited the first pitch he saw from Coyote reliever David Kuzma into right field to score DJ Peters with the tying run.
"This feels amazing," Lewis said. "Everyone had good at-bats and didn't give up. We have worked so hard as a team this year."
Daniel Nist, who struck out in two of his three previous at-bats, fouled off several pitches from left-handed reliever Sage Diehm before finding the power alley between left and center fields. His two-run double gave WNC its first lead of the game, 9-7, and ultimately the victory.
Ty Fox, who closed out WNC's 5-4 win over Salt Lake a day earlier, recorded the final three outs to pick up his second save of the tournament. Fox struck out Kaid Urban with the potential tying runs on base, to send the Wildcats pouring out of the dugout and onto the mound, where they celebrated the wildest comeback of their young lives.
"We just have a dugout of guys who believe in each other and have a chance to be special," Whittemore said.
WNC (40-17) will play in Saturday's' championship against an opponent that will be determined late Friday night. College of Southern Nevada, Salt Lake and Colorado Northwestern remain in contention to play in the finals. The first pitch for Saturday's final is set for noon.
Sophomore reliever Josh Mill made the rally possible by blanking the high-powered Coyote attack in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
"I have a lot of confidence in my team to score runs," Mill said. "I know if we get behind, it's no big deal; I just have to keep making pitches. It took a little while for me to settle in there, but once I settled in, it was just a matter of making the right pitch."
Mill came in for starter Jordan Ragan in the fourth inning after Ragan surrendered a couple of two-out hits. The right-hander from Las Vegas surrendered a three-run homer to Blake Wiggins in the fourth inning and a solo shot to Drew Newson in the fifth before throwing off CSN's hitters with his nasty breaking ball.
Peters credited Mill for making the comeback possible.
"Props to Mill, man," Peters said. "Mill came out and allowed two homers and battled. He's been working hard all year. To me, he was the biggest game-changer for us. And when Fox is painting 90, 91 mph, you can't hit that."
WNC's ninth inning began with David Modler grounding out, but Chad Bell followed with a single to left, and Peters' base hit to center sent pinch-runner Riley Hennings to third base. Both Bell and Peters fouled off two-strike pitches before putting the ball in play.
The rally seemed to die when CSN center fielder Jarrell Latham's diving catch robbed Tim Lichty of an extra-base hit. But Abe Yagi fought of several Kuzma pitches, including one that Coyote first baseman Brody Westmoreland tried to glove while laying out in foul territory, before lacing one up the middle to score Hennings to pull WNC within a run.
Anticipating a fastball on the first pitch, Lewis stroked it through the right side of the infield and into right field, easily scoring Peters with the tying run.
"We have him on a scouting report that he throws a lot of fastballs for strikes, so I was ready to go," Lewis said.
Left-hander Sage Diehm couldn't put away Nist with a third strike, and the powerful stroke of the 6-foot-5 first baseman came into play as he sent a pitch into the left-center alley. Pinch-runner Brogan Secrist scored the go-ahead run and Lewis motored around the bases to score an insurance run.
"This says a lot about us," Peters said. "I'm pumped; I'm super pumped. We had two outs, and we scored the game-tying and game-winning runs. We just never give up."
"That was awesome," Mill said. "It was good to see our guys pull together like that. We've been a close family this whole year. I think we deserve it more than anyone because we have just busted our butts all year."
After blanking the Coyotes on three hits on April 2, Ragan lasted 3 2/3 innings on the steamy May day. He gave up five hits and five runs, walking two and striking out one.
Coyote starter Mikey York didn't last much longer. The Wildcats worked the count in the fifth inning to bring York to his pitch-count threshold. His last pitch was taken over the right-field fence by Modler.
"I know he's signed with a quality Division I program in Arizona, so he's definitely one of their best guys," Modler said. "I just grinded it out.
"It was big because we gave up that three-run shot to Wiggins the inning right before that, so it kind of sparked the offense a little bit and got us going,"
Modler's solo homer made the score 6-3, and RBI groundouts by Sam Salyers and Yagi brought the Wildcats within 7-5 entering the Wildcats' memorable ninth inning.