Ed Petruska-Contributing Writer Pinal Central
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — A gargantuan extra effort sent the Central Arizona College baseball team to a berth in the championship game of the NJCAA World Series.
Thursday's amazing 12-5 victory over Walters State, Tennessee, at Sam Suplizio Field came after the Vaqueros let a 5-2 lead slip away in the bottom of the ninth inning. Central responded with a stunning seven-run rally in the top of the 10th to improve to 4-0 in postseason elimination games.
"We've been through so much adversity this year," CAC coach Anthony Gilich said. "It seems kind of normal when things don't go our way. We've had a lot of challenges."
The Vaqueros will face Iowa Western or Navarro, Texas, in Saturday night's title game, which begins at 6 p.m. Arizona time. All three teams have one loss in the tournament, but CAC received a bye into the final because it has played more games. Iowa Western and Navarro play an elimination game Friday night.
"Every team's goal is to win the national championship," Gilich said. "We talk about it all the time; we don't shy away from the subject. The guys deserve this moment."
Central won national titles in 1976 and 2002 and was the World Series runner-up in 2011, which was the last time the Vaqueros qualified. This is CAC's sixth appearance in the 10-team, double-elimination tournament.
Central (49-20) appeared likely to avoid the dramatics that ultimately unfolded against Walters State (54-11). Starting pitcher Dakota Donovan had held the Senators to two runs through eight innings while striking out 11 and walking one.
But Walters State made it 5-4 on a two-run homer by pinch hitter Alex Bibb following Michael Robinson's leadoff double. That was it for Donovan, who threw 131 pitches.
Reliever Lucas Knowles retired the next two batters on a flyout to right and a strikeout. Down to their last strike, the Senators forced extra innings when Drew Haynie homered to center on an 0-2 pitch.
The Vaqueros didn't waste any time getting back on track. After putting up zeroes against Walters State reliever Jack Collins in the seventh, eighth and ninth, CAC began the 10th with consecutive singles by Ernny Ordonez, Zach Hogueisson and Hunter Jump to load the bases.
"It felt good when Ernny got that leadoff hit," Gilich said.
Ordonoz was cut down at the plate on a 6-2 forceout, but Hogueisson scored when reliever Blake Petty hit Brennan Reback.
The flow of runs kept on coming as the next five batters also reached against Petty and Zebby Matthews. Jake Meyer had an RBI single. Ian Raidy's grounder that was misplayed for an error drove in a run. Liam Spence followed with an RBI single. Clayton Keyes singled to drive in two runs. Ordonez, who went 4 for 6, capped the rally with an RBI double.
The Vaqueros are 7-1 in extra-inning games this season.
Spence scored on a passed ball in the first inning and Ordonez hit a solo homer in the fourth off Walters State starter Alex Haynes to give CAC a 2-0 lead. Keyes delivered a two-run single in the fifth, and Reback had a sacrifice fly in the sixth.
Brayden Combs hit solo home runs in the fourth and sixth off Donovan, who worked out of a bases-loaded jam with an inning-ending strikeout. Donovan, who had 15 strikeouts in seven innings in Saturday's tournament-opening 12-4 victory over Monroe, New York, struck out two batters in four of the eight-plus innings he worked.
"What an unreal performance," Gilich said. "Dakota is such a workhorse."
Sending Donovan out for the ninth came after Gilich talked to his pitcher.
"He blew them away in the eighth (retiring the Senators in order), his velocity was going up and he was getting stronger," Gilich said. "He talked me into it."
Keyes, Spence and Meyer each had two of Central's 13 hits.
Knowles gave up a leadoff single in the bottom of the 10th, but the next batter lined into a double play. The game ended with Knowles' second strikeout.
The Senators also finished with 13 hits, getting three from Xavier Arnette and two apiece from Haynie and Combs.
The Vaqueros are 4-1 in the World Series, with the lone loss coming against Iowa Western — 14-4 in six innings on Tuesday. CAC is 11-2 in postseason play and has won 18 of 20 overall.