Coming up short
Wallingford's potential tying slam doesn't leave park as Mavs' season ends in regional
Austin Wallingford crouched behind the third-base dugout Saturday, his hands clasped on top of his head.
After a few moments by himself, he climbed down the dugout steps, where freshman Bligh Madris gave him a bear hug. Then, he and Colorado Mesa baseball coach Chris Hanks shared a hug.
Nearly a half-hour later, Wallingford was still in a state of disbelief after the third-ranked Mavericks’ season ended in an 8-6 loss to Angelo State in an elimination game of the NCAA Division II South Central Region tournament at Suplizio Field.
“I don’t know how that stayed in,” the CMU senior catcher said of the deep fly ball in the ninth inning that came up about two feet short of a game-tying grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning. “All you guys have seen me hit. If I bat-flip, I know it’s gone, and I threw that bat halfway to the dugout.
“We got one run in, but I really wish we would have gotten four.”
St. Mary’s (41-15) won twice on Saturday, first eliminating West Texas A&M 3-2 and then beating CSU-Pueblo 6-0 to reach the championship game at 3:30 this afternoon.
CSU-Pueblo (41-15) and Angelo State play at noon to get to the winner-take-all title game.
Had Wallingford’s fly ball cleared the wall, hit to the left-center power alley, the Mavericks would have tied the game 8-8. Instead, it turned into a sacrifice fly, and Zach McLeod lifted a fly ball to center, which was dropped, getting another run home and keeping the Mavs’ hopes alive down two runs.
Angelo State’s Steve Naemark, who entered with one out in the seventh, struck out Kevan Elcock to end CMU’s season at 48-9.
It ended one of the best seasons in CMU history short of its ultimate goal of returning to the Division II World Series, where the Mavericks finished one run short of a national championship last season.
With a more favorable gust of wind or two more shut-down innings, the Mavericks just might have reached that goal.
“I don’t know how Wallingford’s ball stayed in the park,” Hanks said. “I’ve seen a lot of ballgames in that yard, and something kept it in, I don’t know what. Guy, I thought we had it tied up right there.”
Just as it happened in the Mavericks’ opening-round loss to St. Mary’s, one inning cost CMU.
Freshman starter Nick Cardinale retired the Rams in order in the first, but he gave up seven runs in the second. Nehwon Norkeh hit a bases-loaded double for the big hit in the inning, getting three runs home. All eight batters Cardinale (5-3) faced reached base, and seven of them scored.
“Same story, we made too any mistakes, bad second inning, we gave the game away in one inning,” Hanks said. “We weren’t competitive on the mound in that one inning and afforded them a big lead, largely unearned. But our guys battled. We fought back. This team’s gritty, they’re tough.
“I think Angelo is a talented baseball team. I wish we could have been able to be better on the mound in two innings in this tournament, and I think we’d be 3-0 at this point, but that’s not the way the game works.”
With Cardinale unable to get out of trouble, Hanks turned to redshirt freshman Josh Ballard, who shut the Rams out until the eighth.
“Basically just pound the zone, throw strikes and give my team a chance,” Ballard said of what he was thinking when summoned in the second inning. “Let them play defense, don’t try to do too much.”
With Ballard keeping Angelo State in check, the Mavericks tried to chip away, but they couldn’t score more than one run an inning until the ninth.
PJ Gonzales singled and scored on a base hit by Wallingford in the first inning, Mitch Robinson slid around a tag to score on a sacrifice fly by McLeod in the third, and James Young III hit a no-doubt home run to center in the fourth.
Another run in the seventh made it 7-4 before Angelo State (39-15) added a run in the eighth, setting up Wallingford’s near-miss in the ninth.
With the CMU fans on their feet, Naemark hit Alex Fife with a pitch, and Trevor Elcock flied out to left.
Mitch Robinson beat out an infield single, and Bligh Madris loaded the bases with an infield single to short.
Wallingford, the South Central Region player of the year, who popped out in his first at-bat against Naemark, the region’s pitcher of the year, in the seventh with two runners on, drove an 0-2 pitch to the wall, and everyone in the stadium thought it was gone.
“I saw that off the bat, and it was hit really well,” Naemark said. “That’s baseball. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously it was in my favor today, but there are times when it does sneak over the wall. I definitely didn’t leave any balls in the zone when I was ahead after that.
“It was not a great feeling seeing it off the bat. That kid did a good job of hitting.”
Wallingford got the pitch he wanted, saw it out of Naemark’s hand. It just didn’t carry as far as he needed to extend his college career.
“I don’t know ... you talk about it as a hitter, it’s called the E spot, it’s effortless, the ball goes far. You can’t feel it when you hit it, and I knew when I hit it, I didn’t feel it,” Wallingford said. “I just don’t know…”