WARRENSBURG, Mo. – No one said it would be easy. But that certainly did not phase fifth-year head coach Justin Pettigrew‘s squad on Championship Monday from Crane Stadium at Tompkins Field. (5) Southern Arkansas entered the final day of the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament needing two wins over top-seeded and host Central Missouri, a consensus top five team nationally, in order to punch its ticket to the DII Baseball World Series. Through the first five innings of play, the Muleriders battled blow-for-blow with the Mules, before a late offensive surge by UCM served as the difference in the regional final as Central Missouri advanced with a 12-5 win.
Playing their fifth game of the tournament and third of the past 24 hours, the Muleriders (30-16) put forth a noble effort on Monday afternoon as the club used a solid start on two-days rest from sophomore Jacob Womack, while recording eight hits, including three by senior Kobe Morris and two from junior Jacob Martinez.
Southern Arkansas answered a single UCM run in the top of the third with two runs in the bottom of that frame to take a 2-1 lead. Senior Mason Peterson walked to lead off the inning and with one out, Baker doubled to left centerfield that pushed the former to third base. Morris then guided a full-count pitch through the right side to plate Peterson and push Baker to second. Martinez followed with a single to left field that scored Baker and put SAU out front 2-1, but the Muleriders would strand runners at second and third to end the third.
Central Missouri, one of the top offensive teams in the country, pushed across four runs in the next half inning to take a 5-2 through four. That response from UCM ended Womack’s day at 3.1 innings, but the right hander was solid through three as he stranded a pair in the first, worked a perfect second and was a wild pitch away from leaving the third inning unscathed.
Again, Southern Arkansas responded with a two-run fifth inning as SAU put together an offensive charge with two outs as Morris singled to centerfield and scored four pitches later on a double to centerfield by Martinez. McGee then drove in Martinez as he placed a 2-0 pitch into right field to pull Southern Arkansas to within a single run of the UCM lead at 5-4.
However, the Muleriders ran into trouble in the top of the sixth as a three-run home run off the bat of UCM’s Dusty Stroup served as the turning point as the blast staked the Mules to an 8-4 lead which blossomed to a 10-4 advantage after a two-run seventh.
Senior Matt Kortendick was the first reliever out of the bullpen for SAU on Monday as he took over for Womack with one out in the third. He retired the first four batters he faced, before working around a two-out double to end the threat in the fifth inning. With one out in the sixth, UCM found its way offensively against Kortendick with the aforementioned home run opening up the box score for the Mules.
Sophomore Remy Bilodeau took to the mound for the third time in the tournament and managed to work out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam in that two-run seventh for UCM by recording a pop out to Baker at second and a 5-3 double play which was engineered by Morris. Central Missouri added two more runs in the eighth inning and SAU’s final run came across in the bottom half as a sacrifice fly from freshman Chris Lyles chased home Martinez.
Martinez recorded two RBI with Morris, McGee and Lyles accounting for one each. Baker joined Martinez and Morris in the hit column as did McGee and Muldoon. Martinez led SAU with two runs scored, while Baker, Morris and Peterson all scored once.
Monday’s matchup marked the fourth time in SAU’s NCAA Era that the Muleriders advanced to the final day of a regional postseason tournament. SAU first reached the final day in 2004 at the South Region Tournament, again at the 2010 South Regional, and at the 2018 Central Regional; hosted by Southern Arkansas.