Following Friday's split with the Community College of Southern Nevada, Western Nevada Community College coach D.J. Whittemore said his team's doubleheader with the Coyotes was like a heavyweight fight between the champion (CCSN) and the top-ranked contender (WNCC).
Whittemore's analogy was a fitting one and, after the Wildcats and Coyotes - both of whom are nationally ranked - split another twinbill at John L. Harvey Field on Saturday, the teams' rivalry has taken on a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier quality.
WNCC dug deep into its bullpen and bench to take a 4-3 win over CCSN in the first game and came within one out of pulling out a narrow victory in the nightcap, but the Coyotes' Ty Manumaleuna landed what amounted to be a late-round knockout punch with his two-run, seventh-inning home run to give his team a 4-3 victory.
There was little to separate the play of the two rivals, with the Coyotes holding a slight edge in hits over the Wildcats (15-13 over both games) and two less runners left on base (15-17), while WNCC committed two less combined errors (two to CCSN's four), including three in the first game.
With the second-game win the Coyotes, who preserved their one-game lead over the Wildcats in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, improved to 16-8 in the SWAC and 26-13 overall.
The Wildcats are 15-9, 21-16-1 and will travel to Twin Falls to play College of Southern Idaho next week.
"The first game was as good a team win as this program has had," Whittemore said. "We used a lot of guys off the bench and out of the bullpen. Everybody contributed to that win."
That included five pitchers, including starter Stephen Sauer (who gave up three earned runs and five hits in 3 1/3 innings), Chris Rickey (1/3 inning), Dan Grubbs (2 innings), winner T.J. Wohlever (who improved to 1-0 after 1/3 inning) and Josh Creveling (who earned his third save in 1 inning of work).
Grubbs allowed one hit and Creveling gave up one walk in relief.
After the Coyotes took a 3-2 lead on left fielder Tyson Mehloff's RBI-single in the top of the fourth, a balk by CCSN starter Colby Shreve in the bottom of the inning scored WNCC second baseman Kyle Bondurant to tie it at 3.
Wildcats first baseman Thomas Miller continued his stellar play on both sides of the ball and his sixth-inning single scored catcher Chuck Howard - who reached base on a walk, advanced to second on a Bondurant walk and went to third on Chad Walling's sacrifice bunt - to give WNCC the win.
Bondurant's single to left scored Pat Grennan and Mehlhoff's error on the play allowed Carson High School graduate Kevin Schlange to score from second and Bondurant to advance to second for a 2-0 Wildcats lead in the second inning.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound Bondurant, WNCC's leadoff hitter, went 1-for-2, walked twice and had one run in game one and went a combined 3-of-11 in the four-game series.
"Bondo's our heart and soul," Miller said of Bondurant, who went 1-for-4 and scored a run in game two. "He brings it every game. He's our guy. He's a great second baseman. I have a ton of respect for the guy. He's blood and guts. He's got the biggest heart I've ever seen. He wills himself to get basehits. He's just an amazing dude."
Bondurant is now hitting .239 and has knocked in 14 runs on the season.
"I was just feeling good today and came out to play with a lot of confidence," said the 20-year-old sophomore, a 2005 Basic High graduate. "I'm starting to hit the ball better than I have been."
Bondurant said the Wildcats are beginning to play as one man.
"We can throw any starting lineup out there - any day," Bondurant said. "That's what it takes to win. We have 25 guys who can all play - any time in any situation. We're starting to play very good defense. We're making good plays and selling out for the team. That's what you have to do to win tight games."
And against CCSN, there has seldom been anything but tight games this season. Although the Coyotes are 5-3 against the Wildcats this year, each of their wins have come by only one run.
CCSN took a 1-0 lead on a Bryce Massanari RBI-double in the top of the third in the nightcap, but WNCC answered with three runs off starter Chad Robinson in the bottom of the inning.
Left fielder Andrew Ferguson (2-for-4, 1 RBI, 1 run) singled with a bouncer over Robinson, which scored catcher Taylor Mieras, who reached base on a walk.
With Bondurant and Ferguson already on, Miller loaded the bases with a walk. Bondurant scored when third baseman Justin Mishalow booted CHS grad Logan Parsley's grounder to third and was tagged with the throwing error to first.
A sacrifice fly by center fielder Brad Carlsen (1-for-2, 1 RBI) scored Ferguson to put the Wildcats up, 3-1.
Whittemore once again made liberal use of his bullpen and starter Josh Brink (3-plus innings), Grubbs (2/3 inning), Wohlever (1/3 inning) and Jeremy Joustra (who took the loss and fell to 0-2 after 3 innings of work) played pitcher by committee.
CCSN closed the score to 3-2 on an Easton Gust RBI-single in the fifth, but for the most part it was a solid outing by Joustra (two eared runs on three hits) and a great defensive effort by WNCC - and especially by Miller.
A diving Miller knocked down what looked to be a sure hit by Jeff Gonzales past first and then tossed it to a sprinting Joustra for the third out in the sixth. Miller also got a forceout of Gust to end the seventh when the CCSN shortstop hit a grounder down the first-base line. The ball hit the base and Miller, playing deep, dived forward to snag the ball - which bounced straight up in the air - and threw himself on the bag to record the out.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the damage had already been done.
With one down and Kyle Bostick steaming toward home on a Massanari single to right, Walling gunned down Bostick at home with a bullet from the outfield for the second out. But the Wildcats watched helplessly as Manumaleuna subsequently drilled a 400-foot two-run homer to right center for the 4-3 lead.
Tyler Lavigne picked up his fourth save and held the Wildcats hitless in the seventh to end the game. Brenton Van (2-1) got the win, pitching 1 2/3 innings of one-hit ball.
Asked what he said to his team after the loss, a serene Whittemore smiled.
"I said, 'Someone is really helping us build character and to stay hungry,'" he said. "Every time we get to the top of the hill and look over, something knocks us back down. It's incredibly painful to lose when you play good and sink your heart and soul into every pitch. But there's also a distant satisfaction."
"It's a tough pill to swallow," said Miller, who sent a rocket to left in the seventh, only to see the wind knock it down. "We were one out away from beating an extremely good team. It just makes us want to work harder and adds fuel to the fire."
Now it's off to play CSI in an important series next week.
"This will be our last chance to play for homefield advantage before the playoffs," Whittemore said of the forthcoming series with the Golden Eagles. "CSI is a very well-coached team. They have great arms on top of their roster. We're going to put on our hard-hats and go to work this week."
The Wildcats will return to John L. Harvey Field on April 20 for its final home regular-season series. They will face Colorado Northwestern Community College.