CARY, N.C. — If something looks too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true. Even a five-run lead in the winner's bracket of the Division II College World Series.
That's the advantageous situation the Colorado Mesa baseball team found itself in after three innings of its game against Central Missouri on Monday.
But what started out looking as though it might be a walk in the park — or in this case, the USA Baseball Training Complex — turned out to be anything but once the Mules' bats heated up as the game wore on.
It took an insurance run in the fifth and some clutch relief pitching by closer Will Dixon to finish the job, as the Mavericks held on for dear life and a dramatic 6-5 victory.
The win gives coach Chris Hanks' top-seeded team the next two days off to rest and prepare before playing again on Thursday in the semifinals of the double-elimination national championship tournament.
"Our guys fought hard and we got out to that early lead, which was good," Hanks said after CMU improved to 52-14 overall and 2-0 in Cary. "We had some opportunities to extend it, but didn't. When you don't do that and you're playing a great team, I figured we'd have to put on our seat belts and hold on."
That's exactly what they had to do.
First, though, the Mavericks put on a display of hitting that filtered all the way through their lineup. All nine starters had at least one hit by the fifth inning on the way to a 12-hit performance.
Things got started right away when lead-off man Hunter Douglas rapped a single on the game's first pitch.
An inning later, singles by Caleb Farmer and Jordan Stubbings put together back-to-back singles to set the stage for a three-run frame that included a sacrifice fly by Chase Hamilton and a Johnny Carr squeeze bunt. Ninth hitter Josh Shapiro also had an RBI single in the inning, the ninth straight game in which he's hit safely.
CMU got two more in the third on the first of two doubles by Spencer Bramwell and a double play grounder for a 5-0 lead.
But that's when the party stopped and the nerves began to fray.
"We were up 5-0 and it's easy to fall into a comfort zone," said Bramwell, adding that he didn't think he and his teammates took their feet off the accelerator with the big lead.
"It's playoff baseball and everyone's playing their best," second baseman Dominic DeMarco, who had a pair of hits, added. "We know that no lead is safe, so we always try to extend it. But they have a good ballclub and we know they were going to put up a fight."
CMU did add another run in the fifth on a Hamilton double and a single by designated hitter and first game winning pitcher Trevin Reynolds. But it also left the bases loaded in the fourth and tallied just one hit over the final four frames.
In the meantime, the fifth-seeded Mules began to chip away.
They got a run the fourth, aided by an error on shortstop Hamilton, and added two more in the fifth off freshman starter Andrew Morris.
The 17-year-old right-hander gave up three earned runs on six hits through 5 1/3 innings of work, the last of which scored after he came out of the game. Reliever Frankie Fitzgerald was also charged with a run in a sixth-inning rally that saw Central Missouri climb back to within a run.
When the Mules put two runners on with one out in the seventh, Hanks decided it was time to go to his closer. And Dixon did what he does best.
He ended the threat in the seventh with a fly ball to left, then struck out four of the final seven hitters he faced to earn his 16th save — tying a single-season school record.
"This is the most important time of the year, so I'm not giving an inch to anybody and trying my hardest to do it for the hitters and do it for Andrew." Dixon said. "Seventeen-year-old Andrew Morris pitched a great game and I didn't want to put an 'L' next to his name."
Despite the tight finish, Hanks said he felt comfortable over those final two innings with Dixon on the mound.
"I know it's going to be hard for anybody to out-compete Will," the Mavericks coach said. "I trust our guys. I know they're going to play for each other."