Getting in the groove

Palm Beach State moves into JUCO title game

Palm Beach State (Fla.) College’s Gabe Martinez connects on an RBI single Thursday night in the sixth inning of the Panthers’ 13-4 victory over Central Alabama in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series. The win sends Palm Beach State into Saturday’s title game.

Central Alabama’s Darius Reese slides between the legs of Palm Beach State’s Marcus Mooney to steal second Thursday night in the Trojans’ 13-4 loss at Suplizio Field. Reese also stole third base and scored in the third inning.

Palm Beach State’s Gabe Martinez ducks as a pitch sails over him Thursday night in the fourth inning of the Panthers’ 13-4 victory over Central Alabama.

It just took Palm Beach State (Fla.) College a little while to get acclimated.

After all, “The Beach” is at 19 feet above sea level, a far cry from Grand Junction’s 4,593 feet of elevation.

After dropping their opening game of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series 6-4 to Central Alabama Community College, the Panthers have found themselves right where they want to be: in the championship game.

“We didn’t come to Colorado to go two and out,” Palm Beach shortstop Marcus Mooney said Thursday night after the Panthers reached the title game with a 13-4 victory over Central Alabama Community College at Suplizio Field.

Palm Beach recharged Wednesday, its first day off of the week, and rapped out 18 hits, taking advantage of four Central Alabama errors.

By virtue of playing the most games, the Panthers (42-20, 4-1 JUCO) get their second day off in three days and leapfrog into Saturday night’s championship game.

“After playing whatever days in a row (four), everybody was fatigued, no question about it,” Palm Beach coach Kyle Forbes said. “Not only did we get a day off, but we had a night game, so it felt like two.

“I felt like the energy level of the squad was outstanding. We came in here feeling good and played a good, solid game.”

Mooney said Wednesday allowed the Panthers to “breathe, just relax. Put food down without it hurting.”

Central Alabama (41-14, 3-1), which lost its first game of the week, plays Cochise (Ariz.) College at 7 tonight to get to Saturday’s championship game. Cochise also lost its tournament opener on Sunday night and has come back through the elimination round, bouncing top-ranked Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist 10-3 earlier Thursday.

The Panthers laughed that they were so used to playing day games, a night game was a real treat.

“It was kind of weird that we didn’t have the morning game today,” said starting pitcher J.D. Underwood, who shut the Trojans down on nine hits, striking out seven. He didn’t walk a batter.

“We didn’t know what to do with ourselves all day. It was great, our pitchers got an extra day off. That helped me tremendously being able to throw on four days’ rest and not just three.”

Underwood drove in two runs with a first-inning double, helping stake himself to a 4-0 lead before he took the mound.

“Obviously I concentrate more on pitching,” he said of his double-duty games. “We’ve got nine guys hitting, and getting those runs in the first inning (helped). You still have to bear down, even if you’re tired and it’s only the first inning. You have to bear down.”

He did that, allowing single runs in the second and third, and two in the fifth when the Trojans threatened to get back in the game down 9-2.

With two runs in and the bases loaded, Alex Lee jumped on the first pitch he saw from Underwood and took it to left. He got under it, though, and instead of a grand slam that would have made it 9-8, it was a routine fly ball, leaving the bases loaded.

That was the last scoring threat Central Alabama had.

“He was really good,” Central Alabama coach Wynn Fletcher said of Underwood. “That’s part of the game. He was really good, and hopefully we won’t have to see him again.”

A win would have put the Trojans in the title game, needing to win only one of two to claim their first JUCO World Series championship. Instead, they need to beat Cochise, which has also fought through the losers’ bracket, to get to a winner-take-all finale Saturday. Central Alabama will send its ace, John Michael Knighton, to the mound tonight.

“I don’t have to say much. They want to be here, they understood where we were tonight,” Fletcher said. “We’ll get some other guys ready to go, and I think we’ll be OK.”

Palm Beach scored five runs in the third inning, added one in each of the fourth, sixth and seventh, then added two in the eighth to end the game one inning early on the run rule.

Mooney went 3 for 6 and drove in two runs, and center fielder Mike Stemle went 3 for 5 with three RBI, scoring three runs.

The Panthers beat the two Texas teams, Navarro College and Midland College, in extra innings to stay alive this week.

As for today’s off-day schedule, Forbes thought a nice, relaxing run might be in order.

“We’ll probably have a 15-mile jog around the Grand Mesa,” he said with a grin. “No, we’ll take batting practice and ground balls and get ready for the next game.

“Yeah, it’s just another game.”


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