SPRINGFIELD, MO. - Moments after Thursday's (May 16) Ashland-Bellarmine game at the NCAA Division II Midwest Baseball Regional Championships concluded, rain started to pelt the Meador Park field and the grounds crew was summoned to pull the tarp.
For the Eagles, the dam broke long before that.
The Knights, the sixth seed in the tournament, scored three runs in the fifth inning, five in the sixth inning and scored at least one run in innings four through eight on the way to a 13-10 victory. The win was the fifth straight for the GLVC Tournament champs.
Ashland is 36-18 and with another loss, will see the season end. On Friday (May 17) at 11 a.m. (Central time), the Eagles will play the loser of Thursday night's Drury-Lewis game. Drury is the second seed and Lewis is the fifth seed. AU is the top seed in this wide open, balanced field.
The fifth and sixth innings were long and painful for the Eagles. The Eagles had two costly errors to help the Knights (30-21) keep those rallies alive. After the Eagles scored three runs in the seventh inning to get back to within 10-6, they committed a costly mental error that prolonged an inning and helped Bellarmine score three times in the top of the eighth inning.
This turned into a ragged game at roughly the halfway point. AU had 10 runs, 11 hits and committed three errors. Bellarmine had 13 runs and 16 hits. The game, which took 3:30 to play, included three players hit by pitches and a pair of balks.
The Eagles started the game on a high note. They were facing Bellarmine righty Kyle Grana, a hefty All-GLVC choice who has been known to throw 95 miles per hour. The Eagles took a 1-0 first-inning lead on outfielder Alex Sortwell's (San Mateo, Calif./Canada College) run-scoring single. That lead ballooned to 2-0 in the third when a sacrifice fly by left fielder Austin Erb (Mechanicsville, Va./Hanover) plated third baseman Wade Kaido (Zanesville, Ohio), who opened the inning with a walk.
Erb was 3-for-5 and drove in three runs. First baseman Tyler Gray (Plain City, Ohio/Jonathan Alder) and shortstop Austin Walts (Amherst, Ohio/Amherst Steele) were both 2-for-4. Walts drove in two runs while Gray saved two runs with a pair of exceptional defensive plays.
Bellarmine got on the scoreboard against starter and loser Brad Thomas (Orrville, Ohio) in the fourth inning. Right fielder Phil Leopold tripled to right-center field. He scored on a ground ball off the bat of third baseman Cole Metcalfe.
AU's troubles began in the fifth inning. The first three Bellarmine batters in the inning reached base. A single by Michael Morrissette was followed by Jes Staples reaching on an error by Kaido. Morrissette scored on the Kaido error and Staples reached second on the misplay. Center fielder Austin Crutcher doubled to get Staples home.
Leopold smacked a ball down the first base line and only a diving stop by Gray kept that from turning into an RBI double. Gray retired Leopold, but Metcalfe singled to bring in Crutcher and give the Knights a 4-2 advantage.
In the second with runners at first and second and two out, Gray ranged into the hole between first and second, picked off a ground ball headed to right field and flipped to Thomas at first for the final out.
Freshman designated hitter Mackenzie Hampshire (Delphos, Ohio/Elida) produced a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fifth to cut the Knights' lead to 4-3. That's when everything fell apart for the Eagles.
In the top of the sixth inning, Bellarmine scored five runs on three hits. The inning began with a homer by second baseman Graham Spencer. That was his second home run of the season. Shortstop Justin Eberenz walked and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt.
At that point, Thomas (10-4) exited in favor of Eric Vaughan (Delta, Ohio/Owens C.C.). Vaughan walked Staples, gave up a single to Crutcher and mishandled a ground ball to the left of the mound. Eberenz scored on the Vaughan error. Vaughan left and Ricky Krieger (New Philadelphia, Ohio) came on and was greeted by a two-run single by Metcalfe. Leopold would eventually score the final run in the inning on a wild pitch.
Grana (7-2) departed after six innings, allowing three runs on six hits. He walked six and struck out one. The Eagles did a number on the Bellarmine bullpen. The Knights ended up using four pitchers after Grana. All of them had their troubles and allowed the Eagles to get back in the game.
The Eagles scored three runs in the seventh inning and that got them back to within four runs at 10-6. Ashland had chances to do major damage in the sixth and seventh innings, but the Knights turned double plays in both innings to escape trouble. In the sixth with the bases loaded and one out, Erb hit a hard ground ball back up the middle. The ball caromed off Grana to Graham at second base, who started a double play, by flipping the ball to Eberenz at second base.
In the seventh, Ashland had three runs home and runners at first and third with one out when pinch hitter Stephen James (Westlake, Ohio) ripped a hard one-hopper to shortstop. Eberenz reached behind his body, snagged the ball and started an inning-ending double play.
Just when the Eagles thought they had the flood gates closed, Bellarmine struck again. With two outs and a runner on third, designated hitter Cody Scheler tapped a ball between first and second. Gray got to the ball, but pitcher Cole Hudson (Dresden, Ohio/Zanesville) was late covering first and Scheler was safe. Catcher Nick Hladek drove a Hudson offering over the left-field wall for a three-run homer, his second of the season. Bellarmine's lead was 13-7.
AU did respond with four runs in the ninth and had runners at first and second base when Justin Strohmeier retired Hampshire on a fly ball to right for the game's final out. Ashland entered this game with a two-game winning streak and wins in five of its last six games.
Crutcher was 3-for-5 and Metcalfe was 2-for-5 with four RBI. Hladek was 2-for-5 and drove in three runs. Bellarmine had six players with two or more hits. Every starter except Eberenz had a hit.
This is AU's first trip to the NCAA regional tournament since 2010. The winner of the regional will move on to Cary, N.C., for the College World Series.
NOTES: Thomas and sophomore pitcher Jake Baldwin (Madison Heights, Mich./Lamphere) were named to the American Baseball Coaches of America All-Midwest Region First Team on Thursday. For both, this is their first time on the team.