UCA wins first NCAA Tourney game
Playing in their sixth elimination game in the past eight days, the Central Arkansas Bears showed that the threat of neither elimination nor rain was enough to put them away. The fourth-seeded Bears overcame a rain delay and a comeback attempt to win their first ever NCAA tournament game, defeating the third-seeded Mercer Bears by a final score of 6-5 in eleven innings to keep their season alive for at least one more day.
Central Arkansas (40-21) wasted no time in getting on the board Saturday afternoon, plating a pair of runs off of four hits in the top half of the first inning. Right fielder Forrestt Allday opened the game with a double to left-center field and was moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by center fielder Jonathan Davis. Left fielder Ethan Harris gave the Bears an early 1-0 lead, plating Allday with a double down the right field line. After a fly out gave the Bears a runner on second base with two outs, catcher Michael Marietta singled to center field off the glove of Mercer (43-18) starter D.J. Johnson, scoring Harris from second and pushing the Central Arkansas lead to 2-0.After Central Arkansas starter Jeffrey Enloe set Mercer down in order in the bottom of the first, the Bears were able to extend their lead in the top half of the second inning. A fly out started the inning before Allday got the offense going again by being hit by a pitch. Davis singled and Harris drew a walk to load the bases for second baseman Blake Marchal, who lofted a sac fly to center field to score Allday and move Davis to third. After a pitching change by Mercer, Marietta drew a full-count walk to load the bases and force another pitching change. A foul out to the catcher ended the threat with Central Arkansas leading 3-0.
Mercer got on the board in the bottom half of the third, cutting the Central Arkansas lead to 3-1. After Enloe struck out the first two batters of the frame, center fielder Sasha LaGarde worked a walk. Third baseman Chesny Young, who is currently riding a 30-game hitting streak, roped a double to left-center field, plating LaGarde from first and cutting the Central Arkansas lead to two runs. Enloe bounced back though, forcing a ground out to second base to end the threat.After a scoreless fourth inning and a scoreless top of the fifth, play was delayed for an hour and fifteen minutes in anticipation of rain that never quite made it to Starkville.When the teams finally returned to the field, Enloe was back on the mound for the Bears. After hitting the backstop with his first three warm-up tosses, the Central Arkansas lefty got a pair of ground outs to second base and a strikeout on just 11 pitches to close out the fifth inning.Mercer reliever David Randall didn't weather the delay nearly as well as Enloe. After getting all of his warm-ups across, Randall surrendered a single up the middle to Allday, hit Davis, moved the runners to second and third on a wild pitch, and gave up an RBI ground out to short to extend the Central Arkansas lead to 4-1. That marked the end of Randall's day, but Central Arkansas wasn't done. Marietta singled off the glove of Mercer first baseman Travis Benn to score Davis and push the lead to 5-1. Marietta was caught attempting to steal second base to end the inning.
Mercer made things interesting in the bottom of the seventh, finally breaking through against Enloe for three runs to pull to within 5-4. Benn got the inning started with a single to left field and moved to second base on a single by shortstop Evan Boyd. LaGarde ripped a double off the wall in right field to plate Benn and cut the lead to 5-2, ending Enloe's day. Bryce Biggerstaff came on to throw for the Bears, and a pair of sac flies to right field made the score 5-4 before he could get out of the inning with a foul out to first base.Mercer continued their late charge in the bottom of the ninth, tying the game at 5-5. A ground out to first base started the inning, before an 0-2 offering from Biggerstaff grazed the sleeve of LeGarde. Young came up big for Mercer, lacing a double down the right field line to score LeGarde from first and even the score at five runs apiece. An intentional walk set up the double play, and Biggerstaff delivered, getting a ground ball to shortstop Justin Treece. Treece fielded cleanly, feeding Marchal at the second base bag. After getting the force at second, Marchal fired to first, completing the double play and getting the Bears out of the inning.
After a scoreless tenth inning, Central Arkansas took advantage of a pair of rare defensive lapses by Mercer, who entered the game with the best fielding percentage in the NCAA. Davis led off the inning by hitting a ground ball to Young at third base. Young bobbled the ball twice, allowing Davis to reach base without a throw. Davis used his legs to move into scoring position, stealing second base after faking twice. A ground out by Harris advanced Davis to third. Marchal hit a high pop up to shallow right field and it appeared as though Davis would be unable to score, but a deke towards the plate drew a throw from right fielder C.J. Reed. The throw was high, glancing off the catcher's mitt and reaching the backstop, allowing Davis to score from third to give the Bears a 6-5 lead.Biggerstaff sat Mercer down in order in the bottom of the eleventh, getting a fly out to right, a line out to short, and a ground out to second base to end the game.
Enloe was effective for the Bears throwing six innings and allowing four runs on nine hits and a pair of walks while striking out five batters. Biggerstaff (6-4) earned the win in relief, throwing five innings. He allowed a single run on one hit and two walks, and struck out three batters.Johnson struggled for Mercer, allowing three runs on five hits in just 1.2 innings of work. He gave up two free passes and struck out one Bear. David Teasley faced just one batter in the top of the second, issuing a full count walk to Marietta. Randall was effective before the delay, throwing three scoreless innings, but was unable to keep it up afterwards, surrendering a pair of runs. In total, he threw 3.2 innings, allowing two runs on four hits and two hit batters while striking out one. Dimitri Kourtis (5-3) took the loss, surrendering an unearned run in 5.2 innings of work. Central Arkansas managed three hits off of Kourtis, who walked one batter and struck out four.
"I'm proud of our guys because they're continually doing things that have never been done in our program," said Central Arkansas head coach Allen Gum in reference to the team's first NCAA tournament win. "Mercer is an outstanding club; they fought us to the end. They're a class act and it was fun being on the field with them." Asked about how the Bears were able to take the punches that Mercer was throwing late in the game, Gum joked, "I'm aging in dog years; I'm surprised I have any hair left. Our whole year was one run games. We're so used to it that these tight games are just kind of standard, there wasn't any panic or anything like that." Asked about Davis' go-ahead run in the top of the eleventh, Gum said, "I just said 'make him make a throw.' It was a blessing for us that the throw sailed on him a bit, we just got a break, and that's all we were trying to do."