The Lander Bearcats spent most of a long evening of baseball trying to give the game away to Central Missouri.
It took until the bottom of the ninth for the Mules to return the favor.
A walk and a wild pitch set up a decisive single by ninth hitter Will Jones in the early hours of Sunday morning, sending CMU to a 4-3 defeat in its opening game of the Division II College World Series.
The winning rally capped a wild finish that saw the Bearcats take the lead on an eighth-inning homer by catcher John Mangum but the Mules rally right back to tie the game in the top of the ninth.
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CMU outhit Lander 11-4 but left nine men on base — most in scoring position — falling into the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination national championship tournament. The Mules will play Franklin Pierce at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the USA Baseball National Training Center.
“I thought there was a lot left on base in terms of runs on the board that we had an opportunity to score without needing hits,” CMU coach Kyle Crookes said after the marathon game, which was moved up a day because of Tropical Storm Bonnie lurking off the Carolina coast. “We’ve got to find a way to score those runs. We had our opportunities, and in a game like this, in the postseason, you have to make good on those opportunities. And we didn’t today.”
Lander jumped out on top early when Zach Daly lined a home run just inside the foul pole in right off of CMU starter Tyler House in the top of the first.
The Mules, 42-14, answered back in the third with a little help from Bearcats right fielder Alex Conaway, who overran a single by Jake Alexander that allowed Dylan Farrell to score all the way from first.
While House settled down after the early long ball, allowing just one hit over the next four innings before being relieved by Lucas Williams, his teammates wasted several opportunities to take the lead or perhaps break the game open.
CMU put runners on second and third with fewer than two out in both the first and fifth, but Lander’s Sam Linn choked off the rallies with strikeouts. The 6-foot-9 right-hander also got some help escaping trouble when catcher John Mangum picked Alexander off third to limit the damage after the Mules scored in the third.
It took another act of generosity by the Lander defense for CMU to finally break through again and go ahead in the top of the eighth.
After a leadoff walk to Matt Elliott, Farrell laid down a perfect bunt in front of the plate. Mangum’s throw to first, however, was anything but perfect, sailing into right field, putting Mules at second and third with nobody out.
They were still there with two down when Mangum let a pitch to Derek Cornell get by him, then compounded the mistake by throwing high to the plate as Elliot slid home safely for a lead that lasted only as long as it took for the Lander catcher to swing his bat.