JOPLIN — It was a familiar situation for a Crowder Roughrider team 44-13 on the season entering Thursday’s game against the State Fair Roadrunners.
Zach Jackson gave the ‘Riders a quality start, Jack Jumper pitched a scoreless eighth out of the pen, Crowder took a three-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, and then the ‘Riders called on their closer Tyler Gregg in the ninth to close the door shut on win No. 45, a win that would put Crowder in the winners’ bracket final of the Region 16 tournament.
State Fair tossed a monkey wrench into those Crowder plans, however, with a string of hits and Gavin Jones’ grand slam — on a 0-2 pitch from Gregg, no less — gave State Fair a one-run lead and the Roadrunners held on for a 7-6 win.
Now, No. 12-ranked Crowder — 44-14 overall — must win four straight games to defend its Region 16 title. The ‘Riders play Mineral Area at noon Friday in the first attempt to keep their season alive.
Let’s jump to the ninth inning Thursday.
Gregg, who entered the contest with eight saves (ranked tied for 10th in NJCAA Division I), started the inning with a five-pitch walk to Steven Bradbury, a bad omen right from the start. Hayden Bradford and Kenneth Prado hit consecutive singles to load the bases for No. 8 hitter Jones, the Roadrunners’ second leading home run hitter this season who hit one earlier in the contest Thursday. Jones delivered the dramatic grand slam.
Gregg surrendered one more hit after the grand slam and Crowder head coach Travis Lallemand called on southpaw Adam Scoggins from the pen. After hitting a batter, Scoggins found a groove and retired the side with a pair of strikeouts to leave a one-run deficit for a potent Crowder offense.
In the Crowder ninth, Tyler Duncan worked a leadoff walk from Josiah Imhoff and Colten Nix’s two-out single gave the ‘Riders runners at the corners, but State Fair right fielder Tyler Crane snagged Cooper King’s liner to end the game.
For the third straight time at historic Joe Becker Stadium, Lallemand had to give his team a fiery talk after a loss.
“We went to our closer and hey, it didn’t work out,” Lallemand said. “Guy put a good swing on it and missed an 0-2 spot and it’s supposed to be away. Scoggins came in and kept it within striking distance. Now, we get a leadoff runner on and we’ve got two guys (Drew Reilly, Quinn Cherry) coming up that have power out the wazoo.
“We just couldn’t get it done. We came back in 2014 in an eight-team tournament after losing in Round Two, so I’ve been here before and hopefully guys understand this is the time to respond. You play an one-game season from here on out. We’ll see what they can do with it and we’ve definitely got the pitching depth to do it and a team that can score enough runs to get back into this thing.”
Crowder missed opportunities to break the game open, finishing with 10 runners left behind. Leadoff man Kobe Morris — who entered the day with 57 RBI and only 19 strikeouts over 52 games played — struck out a pair of times and stranded five runners. That said, Morris gave Crowder the lead in the bottom of the eighth with a two-out, two-run single bringing home Denver Mullins and Luke Price, who each kept the inning alive with consecutive two-out hits. Morris scored on Frielin Cabrera’s single for a 6-3 Crowder lead.
“A lot (runners left behind) on both sides,” Lallemand said. “We had our chances. They had their chances and they got the one big swing late over us. That guy’s really good (State Fair starting pitcher Jake McMahill). I said this coming in here, it’s one of the most competitive tournaments we’ve ever had and that arm was really good. Again, we hit the ball on the screws right at the right fielder (final out of the game), I mean if that thing’s got a little more angle to it, it might get over him and all of a sudden, we win the game.
“I’m not disappointed in the way that we played. It’s tournament baseball. Anything can happen. We’ve got to do a better job of cashing in opportunities early (Friday) to be able to be in the situation we want to be in at the end.”
Crowder starter Jackson and State Fair starter McMahill dueled for seven innings, and both took no-decisions. Both proved effective in different ways.
Jackson allowed three runs (all earned) on seven hits and he struck out one and walked one. Jackson relied on a ton of ground ball outs.
McMahill often took advantage of Crowder hitters chasing a variety of pitches outside the zone and he finished with 10 strikeouts and three walks. McMahill allowed three runs (all earned) on six hits.
Morris and Quinn Cherry each led Crowder with two hits. Cherry homered for the third straight game and fourth time in the last five games and he also doubled and drove in two runs. Morris also finished with two RBI.
Jones sparked State Fair with three hits, two runs scored, two homers, and five RBI. The Roadrunners — coached by former Crowder standout Jud Kindle — improved to 33-22 on the season entering their winners’ bracket final contest Friday against Jefferson.
The ‘Riders have been in this desperate position before, namely in the 2014 and 2016 seasons.
“You look at 2016,” Lallemand said. “We got all the way back to the championship game, went 13 innings, and we lose a one-run game to end our season. At the same time, it’s a situation that we’ve been in before. We’ve got to fight and claw back in it. I told them, ‘It’s not going to be easy but at the end, if you can complete this thing, it’s worth it.’ I think this club is resilient enough to do it. It’s unfortunate to be in this spot, being as talented as we are and wasting a start out of ‘ZachJack.’
“Again, our bullpen had a collapse there. I told Tyler when I took him out, ‘You’ve got to have a short memory because it’s a long tournament, you’re going to be the guy.’ We’re going right back to him (Gregg) and I’m not going to hesitate because he’s been there. I don’t get squeamish on the fact that he blew a lead.”
Region 16 Tournament
at Joe Becker Stadium, Joplin
STATE FAIR 7, CROWDER 6
State Fair 000 002 104 — 7 11 0
Crowder 000 201 030 — 6 11 1
Jake McMahill, Conner Burnett (8), Josiah Imhoff (8) and Derek Shikles, Blake Ford. Zach Jackson, Jack Jumper (8), Tyler Gregg (9), Adam Scoggins (9) and Denver Mullins. WP: Imhoff. LP: Gregg. E: Colten Nix. HR: Gavin Jones 2; Quinn Cherry. 2B: Luke Price, Kobe Morris, Cherry. SF: Steven Bradbury, Kyle Clark. HBP: Shikles, Zack Ehlen; Cooper King, Drew Reilly. LOB: State Fair 6, Crowder 10.