June 1, 2013 11:31:41 PM
STARKVILLE -- University of Central Arkansas baseball coach Allen Gum hanged a picture of professional baseball great Jackie Robinson in the team's locker room when he took over the program three years ago.
The idea was simple: Gum wanted his players to do what hadn't been done before at the school.
UCA did that earlier this week by wrapping up its first NCAA tournament berth. On Saturday, UCA did it by winning the program's first NCAA tournament game by surviving a Mercer University rally to stay alive in the NCAA Starkville Regional with a 6-5 victory in 11 innings.
"The three things I wanted us to always do is keep fighting a good fight, stay the course, and keep the faith," Gum said. "I'm proud of our guys because they played their hearts out."
Both teams had to deal with an hour-long rain delay -- despite the ominous clouds never spilling to the ground -- and the pressure of playing in an elimination game. And while Mercer lost to the University of South Alabama 9-4 on Friday, UCA came close to defeating Mississippi State University, losing 5-3 after leaving the bases loaded in the ninth inning. That experience mirrored a season filled with close calls, including five elimination games in the Southland Conference tournament.
"Nearly half of our conference games were one-run games," said an exhausted Gum.
The confidence derived from pulling out a string of one-run and elimination games powered UCA into the Starkville Regional's third day, said UCA right fielder Forresst Allday.
"It really shows our resiliency coming back after they tied the game," said Allday, who went 2-for-5 and scored three runs. "We've been in this position all year, so there wasn't any panic."
UCA (40-21) got a herculean performance from relief pitcher Bryce Biggerstaff, who went five innings and gave up just one earned run on one hit. Biggerstaff got the victory and helped preserve other arms for UCA's elimination game at 2 p.m. today. Gum said he didn't anticipate getting more than two innings out of Biggerstaff.
UCA chased starting pitcher D.J. Johnson after just 1 2/3 innings. UCA took a 3-0 lead and notched five hits off Johnson, and later pegged two more in the sixth to take a 5-1 lead. UCA led until the ninth, when Mercer's Chesny Young notched an RBI double to tie the game at 5. Mercer struggled against starting pitcher Jeffrey Enloe, who stayed ahead of hitters though five innings, until the seventh, when an RBI double from Sasha Lagarde and sacrifice flies from Young and Nick Backlund brought Mercer within a run.
"We didn't really have any business being there," Young said. "It was a game we should have lost. We had another bad start, but credit our pitchers, who kept us in it. We just didn't do much offensively, but that's how it goes."
UCA found a spark in the 11th inning, when Davis reached base on a fielding error at third base. Davis then stole second base and advanced to third on a ground out. Then, a subtle juke move from Davis to bait right fielder C.J. Reed, who had entered the game in the inning, into an errant throw to the plate was all UCA needed to wrap up the victory. The shallow fly ball should have easily kept the runner at bay, but the lessons learned from a season's worth of close games helped set up the cerebral chess game between Davis and Reed.
"We wanted to make him make a tough throw," Gum said of Reed. "(Davis) was gonna go about five hard steps to make him attempt the throw. We just got a break."
Mercer went down in order to end the game.
"We just couldn't afford to get behind," Mercer coach Craig Gibson said. "You can't play catch up against a team like that. They're too good. It just wasn't our day."
Gibson got a strong relief performance from Dimitri Kourtis, who pitched 5 2/3 innings and gave up one unearned run -- UCA's winning run --on three hits.
Young led Mercer with three hits and three RBIs. Austin Barrett had two hits for Mercer.
The top three hitters in UCA's lineup went 5-for-13 with six runs scored.
n On Friday, South Alabama contained a Mercer team that entered the Starkville Regional ranked fourth in the country in home runs en route to a 9-4 victory.
Although the Bears had 13 hits, playing in Mississippi State University's park hindered their usual attack of scoring via the long ball.
"I don't think we had to make any adjustments," Mercer third baseman Chesny Young, "but it felt different playing in this park. We play in a small park."
Mercer left 14 runners on base.
Nick Zaharion and Dustin Dalken drove in seven of USA's runs. Zaharion went 2-for-2 and drove in three runs, and Dalken had four RBIs on a pair of hits as the Jaguars improved to 43-18.
USA's potent lineup chased Mercer starting pitcher Brandon Barker in the first inning, reaching him for three earned runs on three hits.