HUNTSVILLE – Clayton Harp's walk-off RBI single capped a ninth-inning rally for the Sam Houston State Bearkats as they took the series opener from first-place McNeese, 10-9, on Friday night at Don Sanders Stadium.
The Bearkats (28-14, 14-5 SLC) held an 8-6 lead going into the final three innings, but McNeese (28-12, 18-4 SLC) put up three runs in the top of the and successfully held Sam Houston off the scoreboard for the next two frames before the Kats mounted their final-inning heroics.
Both Andrew Fregia and Robie Rojas managed to get on to open the ninth and Hunter Hearn delivered the inning's first big hit when he tied things up with a single off of Cowboy closer Collin Kober. Two batters later Harp became the walk-off hero, lining his second hit of the night into right field to score pinch runner Mac Odom with the game's deciding run.
The Bearkats had no shortage of offense on Friday, pounding out 17 hits with seven players finishing with multi-hit games. They needed all of that offense to help overcome a season-worst five errors.
Freshman Kyle Backhus earned his third win of the season with stellar work out of the Bearkat bullpen, allowing just one walk to go with five strikeouts in three shutout innings of relief. Meanwhile, starter Heath Donica struck out five Cowboys on the night, but was touched up for five runs in five innings on the hill in taking a no-decision.
The Kats put leadoff runners on in each of the first four innings, and Donica worked around a pair of base runners in the opening frame, but both offenses began to kick into gear in the third. McNeese struck first on an RBI single by Matt Gallier to make it 1-0 after each of the first two Cowboys reached to open the inning. Joe Provezano followed with another RBI single and Shane Selman made it a 4-0 lead one batter later when he split the left-center field gap with a two-run double.
But Sam Houston had an immediate answer an inning later, striking for five runs to surge into the lead. Hits from Taylor Beene and Bryce Johnson got things going and Riley McKnight followed with a two-run triple, the first of his two hits on the night, into the left-center field gap to cut the lead in half just three batters into the frame.
Lance Miles followed that up with his second single of the game, scoring McKnight, and after a bunt single from Fregia, Rojas shot an RBI single of his own into left field to even things up. Hearn then kept the inning going and capped the scoring, singling to center field to score Fregia and put Sam Houston ahead 5-4.
The Cowboys managed to tie it up an inning later on a single and two Bearkat errors, but Sam Houston once again answered in in the bottom half of the fourth. Miles made it a 6-5 game with his second RBI single of the game on his way to a 3-for-4 night, scoring Taylor Beene who had opened the inning with a hit-by-pitch. One batter later Fregia roped a single into left, scoring a pair and pushing the lead back to 8-5.
Austin Nelson got a run back for McNeese in the fifth off of Donica in his final inning of work and Collin Cameron came on in the sixth and got a pair of punchouts to strand a runner at third and keep the Kats up 8-6 going to the seventh.
But things unraveled quickly in the seventh as Provezano singled to open up the inning, setting up Selman who blasted a two-run homer out to left-center field to square things up at 8-8. A single from Nelson followed and Jacob Strancer was hit by a pitch to put two runners on with nobody out. The Kats then went to Backhus out of the bullpen, but a Bearkat throwing error allowed both runners to move up a base and set up Cowboy shortstop Will Fox, who picked up the go-ahead RBI on a grounder before Backhus worked out of the rest of the inning unscathed.
The Cowboys then went to their bullpen for the third time on the night, bringing in setup man Trent Fontenot who struck out four in two scoreless innings of work that included working out of an eighth-inning jam that saw the Kats strand runners on second and third.
However, the Bearkats still had some magic left, and cashed in on it against Kober who was going for his ninth save of the year. Fregia opened the inning by drawing a five-pitch walk and then quickly advanced to third when Rojas bounded a single into left field with the runner in motion. That play set the table for Hearn who lined a 1-0 pitch just over the reach of Fox at shortstop to score Fregia and tie it up.
After Odom came in to run for Rojas, Kober managed to strike out Blake Chisolm, but did not have similar luck with Harp. The Bearkat left fielder worked the count to 2-1 before lining a single to right field to score Odom with the winning run.
The Kats and Cowboys will go at it again on Saturday in the middle game of the series with first pitch set for 3 p.m. from Don Sanders Stadium. Lefty Seth Ballew is set to get the ball for the Kats, opposite right-hander Rhett Deaton for McNeese.
Head coach Matt Deggs on the resiliency of his team …
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight, but these guys over here in this dugout are relentless. You know, they won this thing last year and they are not just going to hand it over. What we have to continue to do is force the issue and play aggressive.”
Deggs on overcoming mistakes …
“I thought we did a good job of that tonight. We made plenty of mistakes, but we kept forcing the issue. Robie (Rojas) executed a gigantic hit-and-run there in the ninth off a really good closer. The last two arms they brought in are both outstanding.”
Deggs on taking on a quality McNeese team …
"We had to earn that thing tonight. McNeese is a really good team. Veteran group and really well-coached. They play hard and play it the right way. I thought it was two scrappy ballclubs going after it tonight. It was actually a pretty fun game to watch."