All gas, no brakes.
That’s the way McLennan Community College (Texas) plays baseball, and that was on full display Thursday night in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
The fourth-seeded Highlanders (46-16, 4-0 JUCO) literally ran past top-seeded Crowder College (Mo.) 15-5 in six innings to reach the championship round, where they’ll play 2019 national champion Central Arizona at 7 tonight, needing one win for the title.
“We’ve got one nine-inning game (tonight) and we’re going to try to win it just like we do every other game,” McLennan coach Mitch Thompson said. “Central Arizona’s a great opponent, they’re really well-coached and the defending national champion from 2019. What a great opportunity for us to compete against the very best and I love the way our guys are competing and where we are right now. We’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, so let’s grab it and let’s go.”
McLennan showed from the outset that any mistake, any bobble, any chance to take an extra base was going to be the norm. Blake Jackson doubled off the left field wall in the first inning, getting one run home, and took third on the throw to the plate.
After back-to-back home runs by Miguel Santos and Jackson in the second inning, Garrett Martin hit a chopper past third base and moved to third on a throwing error. Mason Greer walked and a fly ball by Dominic Tamez got Martin home. Greer went from first to third on a wild pitch, then ended up scoring on the play on an errant throw back to the plate by Crowder catcher Jack Stroth.
“We came in saying we’re going to play with all gas, no brakes and every opportunity we’re going to try to take advantage of and we had quite a few of them tonight,” Martin said.
In the third, Santos hit a ball up the middle and stretched it into a double when both middle infielders went into the outfield for the relay and no one covered second.
“I saw the outfielder come up pretty slow and I figured he was going to lob it in and I peeked at second base and neither of them were there, they were trying to cut the ball off,” Santos said. “One of them actually fell and was on the ground so that’s when I decided to take off.”
Martin singled and worked his way to third, and after Tamez reached on a fielder’s choice, Martin broke for the plate, with Tamez getting into a rundown between first and second long enough for the run to score, putting the Highlanders up 9-1.
“That’s just Garrett being aggressive,” Thompson said. “Seeing he’s got a play and the third baseman’s off the line and Garrett wanted to steal the bag.”
McLennan starter Jack Hattrup allowed four runs on six hits, striking out eight in five innings. During the Highlanders’ big innings, he went down to the bullpen to stay loose.
“Just try to keep that arm loose, but if I have to go down and play catch while these guys are racking up runs, I’m not complaining,” he said.
After Crowder scored two runs in the fourth on Peyton Holt’s base hit and a triple into the right-field corner by Landrey Wilkerson, which McLennan right fielder Marquis Jackson lost in the lights (Wilkerson scored on a sacrifice fly), the Highlanders pushed the lead to 13-3 in the bottom of the fourth, threatening to end the game on the 10-run rule after the fifth inning.
Crowder (55-8, 3-2 JUCO) committed five errors to help the Highlanders put up big numbers, but coach Travis Lallemand was looking at the progress his program has made in its three trips to Grand Junction.
“It hurts, it really does, because we’ve got to go home,” he said. “But you know, again, the biggest thing I can say is I’m proud of these guys and what they were able to accomplish. They progressed, the program took another step, you know, 55-8, school record for wins, I believe a third-place finish in the World Series. You know, that’s nothing to turn your nose on.
“There’s a lot of teams that went home throughout the week that would love to be in the spot we’re in and one team is walking off the field happy this weekend. The other ones are feeling like they miss an opportunity. I feel like we missed an opportunity but at the same time I’m happy and proud of what we did do. I’m not gonna focus on what we didn’t.”
Holt, who went 3 for 4 on Thursday with a home run, is one of several players who will make a run at returning next season.
“Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, last year’s team was expected to come here, and then we got shut down,” he said. “And I mean, that hurt a lot, so we all got together, we talked about it worked our butts off through the fall. Grand Junction has been our goal since August, and we got here, we we made a really good run. ... We’re gonna work to get back here next year for sure.”
Crowder pushed one run home in each of the fifth and sixth innings before Jackson ended it with a two-run single in the bottom of the sixth, sending the Highlanders streaming out of the dugout, celebrating reaching the title game.
“It’s super fun, but the job’s not done yet,” Santos said “We have to stay focused. We want to enjoy the win, it’s a big win and puts us in the driver’s seat, but when we wake up (this morning) it’s game day.”