WARRENSBURG, Mo. – There’s gutsy and then there’s “Parker Abrego firing a complete game two-hitter in his first appearance in over a month and in his first start since March 20″ gutsy. And “gutsy” might not do the performance justice as he notched career-highs in innings worked and pitches thrown. With the Muleriders’ season on the line, fifth-year head coach Justin Pettigrew tossed the ball to the right-hander and he delivered. The sophomore’s effort coupled with timely hitting in the sixth and seventh innings propelled (5) Southern Arkansas past (3) Minnesota State for the second time in as many days as the former heads to Championship Monday of the Central Regional needing two wins over top-seeded and consensus top five Central Missouri (42-6) to claim the program’s first regional championship.
Monday’s matchup marks the fourth time in SAU’s NCAA Era that the Muleriders have advanced to the final day of the regional tournament after first doing so in 2004 at the South Region Tournament, again in 2010 and in 2018 when SAU hosted the Central Region Tournament. Southern Arkansas forced the “if necessary” game in 2010 and 2018 and will need to tomorrow to have a shot at the DII Baseball World Series in Cary, North Carolina, next weekend.
Abrego allowed just two hits, five walks and two hit-by-pitch, while the only blemish in the run column came in the top of the sixth inning as Maverick All-American Joey Werner nailed an opposite-field home run to give MSU an early, but short-lived lead. Abrego induced a dozen fly outs and seven groundouts, while stranding seven base runners to improve to 4-2 on the season.
The 1-0 lead for Minnesota State after five and a half innings did not last as Southern Arkansas pushed across three runs in the home half of the sixth. Sophomore Riley Orr singled off of MSU starter Cam Kline’s glove, senior Austin Baker singled into centerfield and a fielder’s choice from the bat of senior Kobe Morris put runners at the corners with one out. A hard hit ground ball to shortstop in junior Jacob Martinez’s bat resulted in an RBI-single that plated Orr and tied the game at 1.
With two outs and runners and first and second, senior Zach Muldoonchopped a pitch to third which forced an error and loaded the bases for junior Tucker Burton. Burton, on the first pitch he saw, doubled into right field allowing Morris and Martinez to score and give Abrego more than enough run support.
In the two games prior, Southern Arkansas had managed just seven hits and in the first five innings of Sunday’s nightcap the Muleriders had recorded only a pair. But the three runs in the sixth came on four hits and after the stretch from Crane Stadium at Tompkins Field, SAU added two more runs on three additional hits to all but put the game away with the powerful jaunt the club was receiving from Abrego.
The insurance runs came courtesy of a two-run single down the right field line by Morris that scored Orr, who reached on a well-hit double, and Baker, who singled and stole second to move into scoring position.
Burton, Orr and senior Mason Peterson all doubled in the win. Orr, Baker and Morris all collected a pair of hits with the latter two each stealing a bag. Orr scored twice, while Morris and Burton accounted for two RBI each. SAU pushed across three earned runs and five total on one of the country’s top pitching staffs which used three arms on Sunday night including Kline who suffered the loss after going 6.1 innings allowing seven hits and two earned runs with six strikeouts. MSU entered the Central Region Tournament with Division II Baseball’s best team ERA at 3.03, strikeout-to-walk ratio at 5.01, and WHIP at 1.12. That was evident as the Maverick staff did not issue a free pass on Sunday with only an intentional walk allowed on Saturday in 17.1 innings against SAU in two games.
In Sunday’s opener, freshman transfer Santos Sosa put together the longest outing of his Mulerider career as he moved into a starter’s role for the winner’s bracket final. The right hander more than held his own against one of the country’s top offensive lineups as he tossed eight innings scattering a dozen hits and two walks, while stranding nine Mules on the base paths and fanning two as he faced 37 UCM hitters.
Sosa worked around Central Missouri runners in scoring position in five of his eight innings and relied on quality defense behind him as a dozen fly outs and eight groundouts kept the Mulerider defense busy.
The Muleriders struck for two runs in the top of the fifth inning as timely hitting off the bat of Morris resulted in a two-run double into left centerfield that plated sophomore Ty Manning and Peterson with two outs in the frame. Manning led off the fifth with a bunt single to third base and stole second to put himself in scoring position. Peterson followed with a walk and with one out, Manning moved to third on a fly out to centerfield by Baker.
Morris placed a full count pitch to the signage as Southern Arkansas responded following a two-run fourth by the Mules that staked UCM starter Conor Dryer to a 3-0 lead through four. The Mules added one more run in the fifth to take a 4-2 lead. In the ninth inning, sophomore Brett McGee drew his 40th free pass of the season, and second of the day, to lead off the frame and moved to second on a balk, but would be left stranded as UCM advanced to Monday’s Central Region Championship.
Baker and Morris both doubled, while Muldoon and Manning each delivered a single in the loss.