Phew! Baseball holds on for win in crazy Sunday finale
By SCOTT WARD
GREELEY -- Northern Colorado Baseball couldn't have played much worse than it did through the first three innings Sunday in its four-game series finale with South Dakota State.
The Bears couldn't have played much better than they did for the rest of the game, though, save for a final inning that got a little hairier than everyone in the home dugout would have liked.
But when freshman Eric Ferguson finally squeezed the Bears' 27th and final out, and Northern Colorado had won the game 15-13 at Jackson Field, Bears coach Carl Iwasaki finally allowed himself to wax poetic about the win and speak about what this kind of a victory can mean for his building program.
But only then. Only after Northern Colorado (8-11)—which overcame a 5-0 deficit after three innings to later lead 15-6 at the end of the seventh inning—secured its fourth home victory this season and stretched its run of non-losing series to four.
"Wins and losses to me are trivial," Iwasaki said. "I tell the team that, too. The scoreboard, the number at the end of the game, is trivial. The wins and losses to me, in my little romantic way, I don't care. It's how hard we play and how prepared we are going into every game. We play one game at a time, and we're going to play as hard as we can. I challenged them and I tested them yesterday going into today. I said, 'Sunday is the day when the team that wants it the most is going to win the game. Outscore the next opponent.'
"They showed up. We spotted them five, [we] came back. I'm proud of them for doing that."
South Dakota State (6-12-1) whacked out five hits and scored five runs in its first three trips to the plate. It also got some help from the Bears, who committed two errors in the early going and saw starting pitcher Joe Willman (2-3) hit two batters.
It seemed then that the Bears were about limp into their upcoming, season-long eight-game road trip with a frustrating home loss thick in their minds.
But then, just as those thoughts started to trickle in, freshman Ryan Yamane hit a one-out double down the right field line and then scooted over to third on a fielding error from SDSU right fielder Zach Rhoads.
Senior Adam Hilker then immediately singled in Yamane and, two batters later, senior Tony Crudo, who finished 3-for-5, hit his second home run of the year, a two-run shot that cleared the left-center field fence in a hurry.
That pulled the Bears within 5-3.
Northern Colorado took the lead for good in the fourth when junior-transfer Derek Baum led off with a single to left-center and freshman Jensen Park gave Northern Colorado a two-on, one-out situation with a seeing-eye single through the right side.
Hilker cleaned up the base paths with a double—he finished 3-for-4 and ended the series with a .464 batting average this season—and that easily scored Baum and allowed Park to come home, too, on a fielding error by the Jackrabbits' left fielder, Phil Paquette.
"Timely hitting is our key right now," Iwasaki said. "It's not an issue for us getting on base. Second game [yesterday] we had runners on base—we left 10 on base—so I talked this morning [to the team] and said, 'The only thing we need to work on and lock in on is our timely hitting. When we have runners in scoring position, we have to generate and get them in.' And we did that today."
The Bears continued to pile on from there and led 15-6 in the seventh and 15-8 heading into the ninth.
Freshman relieve Jess Amedee was called on to finish off the win, and with his 4.15 ERA and .250 batting-average against coming with him, a win for the Bears seemed hardly in doubt.
To its credit, though, South Dakota State wasn't fazed by the situation.
Amedee got the first out of the inning on a first-pitch flare to Hilker but then ran into all sorts of trouble. The Jackrabbits got six straight hits after that first out and scored three, to pull within 15-11, and had the bases loaded with still just one out.
Amedee coaxed a sacrifice fly to right for the second out of the inning, and, after pinch-hitter Zach Briggs singled between short and third to keep SDSU's hopes alive, Amedee got Rhoades to send one to Ferguson.
Then Iwasaki and his team got to celebrate, with fingernails likely a little shorter than when the ninth inning started.
"Tip your cat to [SDSU]," Iwasaki said. "They are a good hitting ballclub. They hit the heck out of the baseball yesterday; they hit it last year. We have a lot of respect for them. I didn't expect them to generate five runs in a quick order, but they did. We have to prevent against that, but I told [my players] that I appreciate that: South Dakota State fighting. That's what we have to always do.
"One run away from being 10-run ruled, and they were fighting back."
NOTES: Northern Colorado overcame a 5-0 deficit to earn a series split with SDSU ... The Bears have now gone four series without a loss ... They are 7-5 since March 9 ... The 15 runs scored Sunday are Northern Colorado's most since putting up 17 in a 17-6 win against North Dakota on May 7, 2011 ... The Jackrabbits led 5-0 after three innings before the Bears scored at least one run in innings three through seven ... Northern Colorado led 15-6 at the end of seven ... Nate Steinmetz came into the game in the sixth with the Bears ahead 8-6 and struck out the side (while giving up a hit) ... Tony Crudo, Jensen Park and Adam Hilker led the Bears offensively in the four-game series ... Crudo was 7-for-14 (.500) while Park and Hilker both finished 6-for-15 (.400) ... The Bears will now play away eight straight away from Greeley, including starting 2012 Great West Conference play with a four-game series at New Jersey Institute of Technology from Thursday to Saturday, April 5 to 7.