WARRENSBURG, Mo. – Senior Zach Muldoon sent a 2-2 pitch sharply on the ground to third base and the throw home to cut down the winning run in senior Austin Baker was not in time as (5) Southern Arkansas walked off (3) Minnesota State 2-1 in Saturday’s nightcap from Crane Stadium at Tompkins Field. The win, which was highlighted by an outstanding effort from SAU starting pitcher Zach Smith, sends the Muleriders to the winner’s bracket final of the NCAA DII Central Regional where host and top-seeded Central Missouri, a consensus top five team nationally, awaits on Sunday morning in Warrensburg.
The Muleriders (29-14) managed just three hits against the Mavericks’ Nick Altermatt in the win as Baker collected two including a lead-off double in the bottom of the first and a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth; both of which led to him scoring with the first giving Smith an early 1-0 lead and the second sending Southern Arkansas into Sunday unbeaten.
Baker advanced to third on a groundout by classmate Kobe Morrisfollowing the former’s leadoff double and was pushed home on an RBI-groundout from the bat of junior Jacob Martinez. Smith worked around trouble in the top of the second inning as he pitched out of a bases loaded jam with one out after surrendering a solo home run which tied the contest at 1. He also threw around a base runner at third in the top half of the first inning.
Smith stranding the bases loaded in that second frame served as the first of several situations that the right hander pitched out of on Saturday as he delivered a tenacious effort on the hill which saw him scatter nine hits and three walks, while fanning two and allowing only a single run in 8.0 innings of action.
After the damage done by SAU in the first inning, Altermatt faced the minimum in the third, fourth and fifth innings, before the Muleriders managed to get to the Maverick right hander with runners at first and second with no outs in the sixth only to come away empty in the run column as the game remained tied at one entering the seventh. Senior Mason Peterson singled to start the inning; the lone hit allowed to a Mulerider between Baker’s knocks in the first and ninth innings.
For Smith, he worked a quick third inning highlighted by a 6-4-3 double play, faced the minimum in the fourth as sophomore Brett McGeehosed a two-out base runner at second base to end the frame, left two men on in the fifth inning and forced the abandonment of MSU baserunners at the corners in the sixth. A Maverick reached base in both the seventh and eighth innings, but would not make it past first as Smith induced a dozen ground ball outs and eight fly outs in his outing.
Southern Arkansas went back to the well for the ninth inning as sophomore Remy Bilodeau, who was very solid in relief of starter Jacob Womack on Friday, entered in the ninth inning to hold Minnesota State at a single run. Back-to-back two-out singles were left on the base paths as Bilodeau fanned MSU’s Ty Denzer to end the top half of the inning and set the stage for the SAU offense.
Baker’s single started the frame and he moved to third on a fielding error by the Maverick second baseman in Morris’ at bat. Martinez grounded out which moved Morris to second as Baker held at third and an intentional walk to McGee, the lone free pass of the night allowed by Altermatt, loaded the bases for Muldoon who delivered.
The victory over the Mavericks was the first for Southern Arkansas. The Muleriders dropped a 6-3 decision to MSU at the 2014 NCAA DII Central Regional in Russellville, Arkansas, and suffered a 7-2 loss at the 2015 NCAA DII Central Regional in St. Cloud, Minnesota. SAU has won four of its past five against UCM dating back to the 2013 season. The Muleriders topped the Mules 11-6 in the 2018 NCAA DII Central Regional played in Magnolia