Facing elimination on Sunday at the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series, the Western Nevada College Wildcats turned to reliable sources to continue their record-setting season.
Sophomore right-hander Dylan Baker struck out 10 and kept the Cisco Wranglers guessing and Dillon Ness knocked in three runs with a seeing-eye double en route to a 9-2 victory in Grand Junction, Colo.
"Great team win ... great team effort," said WNC Coach D.J. Whittemore. "We had the best pitcher in junior college baseball pitching for us today, and that helped."
WNC continues the double-elimination tournament Monday against Iowa Western (58-6) at 9 a.m. The victory, the Wildcats' 48th, equalled the school's single-season mark set back in 2009 when WNC finished third at the JUCO World Series.
The victory also marked the 300th win of head coach Whittemore's career at Western Nevada. Whittemore's seven-year record at WNC is 300-124-2.
Baker (13-0) blanked the Wranglers for five innings before giving up a two-run homer to Cody Tillotson in the sixth. Outside of a first-and-second jam in the first inning, Baker didn't encounter any trouble until late in the game.
"The infielders did a great job of playing catch, and it makes it easier when you give a guy a lead," Whittemore said.
Baker left in the eighth inning after allowing Cisco's seventh hit, giving the Wranglers two base runners and a chance to tighten the score.
"He's been our workhorse all year, and it was time to take care of him," said Whittemore of pulling his star pitcher began missing high with his fastball.
Brandon Jackson, a starter for the second half of the season, closed the door on Cisco's comeback bid, recording a strikeout and line out with two runners aboard. The line drive was a ball scorched by Mark Davis to right that Ness was somehow able to keep in his glove.
"That's a two-run double (otherwise), and it's a different ball game at 6-4," Whittemore said.
Jackson recorded two strikeouts in the ninth, giving the Wildcats 13 overall.
Ness' double off the glove of a diving outfielder allowed three runs to score, capping a five-run WNC third inning. Neil Lawhorn added three hits as WNC totaled 12 against two Cisco pitchers.
The Wildcats scored three insurance runs in the ninth.
Wranglers sophomore pitcher Brad Vachon used a breaking ball to strike out two of the three Wildcats he punched out in the first inning.
However, WNC's highly regarded pitcher Baker was nearly as sharp in striking out three in the bottom of the inning. But after fanning the first two hitters, Baker ran into a bit of trouble by surrendering a double to center field by Alvaro Moreno and a walk to Tillotson. Then, after falling behind the previous two hitters, Baker struck out Jake Armstrong, batting .445, on three pitches.
Rayne Raven gave the Wildcats' offense a lift in the second inning. In his first at-bat of the tournament, Raven took a two-strike offering down the right-field line to plate Ness, who was hit by a pitch with two outs. Vachon seemed preoccupied with Ness at first base throughout Raven's at-bat, throwing over to bag five times.
The Wranglers were unable to cash in a leadoff double by Davis in the second inning. A groundout and two strikeouts by Baker extinguished the rally.
The Wildcats figured out Vachon in the third, sending nine hitters to the plate to package five runs on five hits. A day after leaving five runners on base in the first three innings of a 10-1 defeat to Polk State, the Wildcats took advantage of their scoring chances against Cisco.
"When you hit it where they aren't standing, you look smart. When you hit it where they are standing, you don't look so smart," Whittemore said. "We didn't do anything different."
Bobby Pappin triggered WNC's first multi-run uprising of the tournament by lining a triple to the gap in right-center field. Neil Lawhorn followed with a run-scoring single, putting WNC ahead 2-0. Chris Woolley made it three straight hits for the Wildcats, slashing a base hit to right field, moving Lawhorn to second. Both runners moved ahead a base on a passed ball, removing the need for a sacrifice bunt. A walk to Taylor Smart loaded the bases. Following a Derrick PItts lineout out to second base, Zach Hendrix slammed a base hit to right field, scoring Lawhorn for a 3-0 WNC lead. Vachon appeared on the verge of minimizing the damage after a fly out by Mike Umscheid, but Ness punched a short liner into center field that popped out of the glove of a sprawling Heath Herrington. All three Wildcat base runners scored on the double, pushing WNC in front 6-0.
Baker stranded four Wranglers on base through three innings. It was only Baker's second start of the postseason and first since May 11 at the Region 18 tournament. He threw 117 pitches before being lifted in the eighth.
In the Wildcats' three-run ninth inning, Smart scored Lawhorn with a double to left field. Pitts followed with a run-scoring groundout to second, and Hendrix's RBI single to center scored Smart with the Wildcats' final run.
Lawhorn led the Wildcats with three hits, two runs scored and an RBI. Smart was 2-4 with two runs and an RBI, Hendrix knocked in two runs while going 2-5 and Raven finished 2-4 with an RBI.
Top-ranked Iowa Western advanced to play WNC by beating Spartanburg, S.C., 4-1. After playing the NJCAA's third-rated team on Saturday and the fourth-ranked club on Sunday, Whittemore doesn't expect the road for any club pursuing a national title to get any easier.
"You have to beat everybody if you want to be the best," he said.