Squeeze key as Neosho tops Spartanburg

Neosho (Kan.) County’s Jordan Miller lays down a bunt for an RBI single in the fifth inning of the Panthers’ victory over Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) College in Game 2 of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series at Suplizio Field.

The suicide squeeze is alive and well in Chanute, Kan., home of Neosho County Community College, which was downright surgical with it Saturday in Grand Junction.

For Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) College, it was fatal, especially in a disastrous bottom half of the fifth inning when two squeeze plays plated four runs and positioned the Panthers to win 11-3 in the first round of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.

The game also ended early because Neosho led by eight runs after seven innings, thanks to the effective use of small ball. Also key to the win was winning pitcher Matt Strahm, who shook off a rough start —  he allowed three runs on five hits in the first two innings — to blank Spartanburg the rest of the way on one hit.

“They look like they’ve done that a lot. They looked comfortable up there with the squeeze,” Spartanburg coach Tim Wallace said. “They don’t do that where we come from. We got one out of the three and misplayed the others.”

Neosho coach Steve Murry acknowledged the squeeze play is an oft-used part of the Panthers’ game, and it was employed a little more than normal Saturday, in part because of the steady wind, which averaged 33 mph during the game with gusts above 40 mph.

“We do a lot of squeezes, especially when the wind is not in our favor,” Murry said. “We have to execute, and we have to play small ball. We don’t score a lot of runs, so we have to take advantage of that.”

It’s not that the Panthers can’t hit and score the more conventional way ­— leadoff hitter David Bote opened the game with a triple and scored to tie the game 1-1. And after Spartanburg scored two in the top of the second, Neosho answered with two runs, thanks to a double off the left-field wall by Nick Feighner and singles by Bote, Garrett Schaede and cleanup hitter Robbie Ewing.

In the fourth and fifth innings, however, the formula was lethal.

In the fourth inning, a leadoff walk to Kas Sanders was followed by a bunt single by No. 9 hitter Jordan Miller, which was accompanied by a throwing error to send Sanders to third. Miller then stole second base, and Bote put down a squeeze that scored the last run the Pioneers needed. But they added another that inning, then came the fifth inning.

Feighner drove in the first of five runs in the fifth with a squeeze bunt. Two batters later with the bases loaded, Miller, after barely fouling off a pitch on which the squeeze was called, put down the bunt, and the third baseman threw the ball past first. Three runs scored on the play, and Miller ended up on third. He scored when Bote struck out, but the catcher had to throw down to first base because of a dropped third strike.

“We run what’s called the double squeeze, and it’s the prettiest play in baseball,” Murry said. “Runners on second and third, you bunt it to the third baseman, and the second runner comes around just as you field it and throw it to first. So, it’s a footrace, and it’s absolutely gorgeous when ran right.”

Miller downplayed his active role in the squeeze plays, saying he works on bunting in practice every day.

“That is part of my game,” he said.

But Bote overheard Miller being asked about his bunting prowess, and he felt compelled to interrupt and answer for his teammate, yelling, “Stud!”

Bote added the Panthers’ early matching of Spartanburg’s runs was important.

“They knocked us early in the first inning, and we had to respond and responded well as a team. Everybody was hitting, everybody was fielding, and Strahm threw a heckuva game.”

Strahm showed how much he appreciated the early support by getting into a groove that silenced Spartanburg. He retired the last 11 batters he faced.

“They came out attacking,” he said of the Pioneers. “They were pounding me, and my hitters did a good job of picking me up.”

Strahm said he switched from a four-seam grip to two-seam in the third inning, and that helped him keep the ball down.

“Matt’s a huge competitor, and the best thing about today is: A) he got his feet wet, and B) he didn’t throw a whole lot of pitches, so he’ll be able to come back a little quicker,” Murry said.  “The first two innings weren’t his best, but after that he was pretty Matt Strahm-ish.”

Up next for Neosho is San Jacinto (Texas) College-North, a veteran of the JUCO World Series; the Panthers are in the World Series for the first time since 2003.

“Winning the first game’s huge, getting the nerves out,” Strahm said. “I mean, it didn’t seem like anyone showed up with nerves, except for me the first two innings. … Get this first win, and everyone’s loose, and now we’re going to come out and have some fun against San Jac.”


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