Little was going right for Western Nevada College in the second game of a baseball doubleheader Saturday.
The Wildcats’ bullpen was struggling to throw strikes, helping Colorado Northwestern build a 6-1 lead. With ace Ben Wright frustrating Wildcat hitters, it seemed as if WNC’s chances of staying in hot pursuit of Scenic West Athletic Conference leader Salt Lake City were dimming.
However, Rayne Raven launched a two-run homer in the third inning and Joey Crunkilton padded his team RBI lead with a tie-breaking two-run single in the sixth as WNC rallied for an 11-6 victory.
“I think it was a good team win,” said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore. “The players deserve a lot of credit; I think it’s their work ethic. They put too much into it to quit. When you play every pitch, you have a chance in every game.”
Preceding the comeback victory was a 1-0 WNC win in which Christian Stolo and Conor Harber combined on a seven-hit shutout.
The sweep kept the Wildcats (16-8) two games behind Salt Lake (18-6) in the SWAC standings with eight games to play.
“It’s probably an extreme long shot,” said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore of the prospects of catching first-place Salt Lake. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to try, but whether we have a two-game lead or are five games back, our job is to keep getting better.”
A two-run single by Rick Dorantes helped stake CNCC to a 6-1 lead heading into the bottom of the fourth inning. But after a one-out infield single by Sam Hall, Raven cracked a Wright offering over the left-field fence, drawing the Wildcats to within three runs.
When Wright was pulled before the next inning, the Wildcats capitalized. Jake Bennett greeted Mathew Mannens with a double to center field. Crunkilton’s groundout moved Bennett to third base and a walk to Stolo brought up Alex Fife. Fife lined a RBI single to left, which was misplayed, allowing each baserunner to take an extra base. Hall’s sacrifice fly brought home Fife to make the score 6-5, and the Wildcats tied it on Raven’s two-out base hit to center.
In the sixth, the Wildcats pulled ahead. Austin Andrews started the winning rally with a bunt single and went to second on a walk to Tony Roque. Bennett nearly beat out a sacrifice bunt, putting the two runners in scoring position.
With a base open, CNCC elected to pitch to Crunkilton and paid for it. Crunkilton hit one back up the middle, scoring both Andrews and Roque for an 8-6 Wildcat lead.
“Any time Joe comes up, we’re happy,” Whittemore said. “He’s worked hard to be a complete player. I’m excited for his success and I’m looking forward to seeing him get rewarded.”
Before the Wildcats were retired in the sixth, Stolo added a RBI double, Raven slashed a RBI single and Fife scored an unearned run when the catcher dropped a throw to home.
The win went to Harber, who got out of a jam in the top of the sixth when the Spartans put two runners on base with one out. Harber struck out Gavin Brady with a curveball with runners on second and third bases for the third out.
“He was great. He saved our bacon a couple of times this series,” Whittemore said of Harber (6-0), who collected a win and two saves in the four-game series.
Raven led the Wildcats’ 11-hit attack with three hits and four RBI. Andrews chipped in two hits, and Fife, Stolo and Andrews scored two runs.
No one has been more upset with his struggles on the mound as of late than left-hander Stolo.
“It’s probably been a combination of things,” Stolo said. “I haven’t been locating as well as I should be and against Salt Lake there were lot of bloopers, and I wasn’t focused on the next pitch. I think I did that a lot better this time.”
Obviously, Stolo’s 5 2/3 innings of shutout pitching against Colorado Northwestern was a welcome sight to the sophomore and the team. Stolo allowed six hits and fanned seven in his longest start since a complete-game 3-1 win over Southern Nevada on March 20.
“It hasn’t been easy for him to deal with. He doesn’t handle losing wel. He works hard and he expects to win,” Whittemore said. “He threw a great game today, and man, we needed it.”
Whittemore said Stolo has high expectations of himself after turning down a scholarship from the University of Virginia last year to play one last season for WNC.
“The reason he did that is he wants to be part of a championship, and he wants to be a leader,” Whittemore said.
Stolo’s counterpart on the hill, left-hander Brennan Bahr, was nearly as effective. Bahr blanked the Wildcats over the first three innings but ran into some trouble in the fourth when WNC packaged three of its four hits against him.
One of them was Spenser Dorsey’s solo homer to left.
“I was seeing the ball real well off that lefty,” Dorsey said. “I grounded into a double play my first at-bat, but I hit it hard. So, I just knew to do the same thing my next at-bat, and I got a fastball, dropped the barrel and let the head out.”
Roque and Corey Pool also delivered hits in the inning, but Bahr prevented further damage by retiring Harber on a foul out.
Stolo never let a Spartan get past second base, but twice put two Spartans on base. The latter time came in the sixth inning, prompting Whittemore to lift him.
“It’s not a bad idea giving the ball to the guy who got drafted,” Stolo said.
Harber didn’t disappoint Stolo (4-3). He came in to strike out Ryan Mitchell to halt the rally.
“This year, I’ve had a lot more pitching experience, and it definitely helps with the confidence, knowing where you are going to throw it,” Harber said.
Harber fanned the first two Spartans in the seventh, but Jake Morgan’s infield single gave the visitors some hope. But Joey Crunkilton ran down Cruz Vigil’s long drive to left to end the game.
Five of Stolo’s strikeouts came in his final 2 1/3 innings of work.
“For some reason since high school, I’ve always been that kid who gets stronger throughout the game and starts throwing harder later in the game when I get warmed up,” Stolo said.