Making only his second collegiate start - both in this year's NCAA post-season - Kyle Jones allowed two runs in seven innings, while Michael Williams and Patrick Ball shut down rallies in the final two innings as nationally top-ranked Mount Olive clinched a spot in the national championship game with a 5-3 victory over No. 7 Central Missouri Thursday in the semifinal round of the 2008 NCAA Division II Baseball National Finals Thursday at Sauget, Ill. The Trojans are playing in a national championship game for the first time in school history in any sport.
Mount Olive plays Saturday at 1 p.m. (Eastern) against either No. 2 Sonoma State or No. 4 Ouachita Baptist. The game will be televised nationally on CBS College Sports, along with regional cable sports channels.
Mount Olive (57-6) overcame an early 1-0 deficit and took the lead for good with a three-run second inning, all the runs coming with two outs. The Trojans loaded the bases on one-out singles by Josh Harrison and Jesse Lancaster and a two-out walk to Joseph Westbrook. David Cooper drew a walk to bring in the Trojans' first run and Rich Racobaldo connected on a two-run single off the wall to give Mount Olive a 3-1 lead. Alex Vertcnik appeared to have an rbi-single through the left side, but Central Missouri shortstop Brian McBride made a diving stop to his right and threw Vertcnik out from the ground.
Double plays helped Central Missouri (47-17) keep it a two-run game. Erik Lovett led off the top of the third with his 28th double of the season and went to third on a fly out. Lovett tried to tag up on Harrison's fly ball to left field, but Will Feil threw Lovett out at the plate.
The Trojans loaded the bases with one out in the fifth, chasing Mules starter Mark Carey (10-2). But reliever Kyle Crandall got out of the jam on a 1-2-3 double play.
"We missed some opportunities early and it almost came back to haunt us," said Trojan head coach Carl Lancaster.
Central Missouri, which won national championships in 1994 and 2003, got on the scoreboard n the bottom of the first as Feil led off with a double, took third on a passed ball and scored on a ground out. Jones (4-0) went on to retire nine of the next 11 batters after allowing the leadoff double.
Mount Olive turned a defensive miscue into an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the fourth. Balin Bergman led off the inning with a double and one out later, advanced to third on a fly out to right. The ball got away on the throw to the infield and Bergman rounded third, but shortstop Cooper threw Bergman out on a close play at the plate.
Central Missouri had a runner on second with nobody out in the sixth as Feil hit a leadoff single and stole second. Jones retired the next two batters on pop-outs and Lovett saved a run with a diving stop behind the bag on the first base line. Lovett flipped to Jones for the final out.
The Trojans got some breathing room with two unearned runs in the top of the seventh, despite nearly hitting into another 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded. Cooper reached on an infield single and after Racobaldo hit into a force play, Vertcnik and Lovett followed with singles to load the bases. Vertcnik's hit extended his hitting streak to 25 games.
Alex Kent took over on the mound for Central Missouri and got Jason Sherrer to hit a come-backer to the mound. But Kent's throw to the plate was off-target, allowing Racobaldo to score. Vertcnik came home on Harrison's sacrifice fly to give Mount Olive a 5-1 lead.
Mike Hallam led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run to right field to pull Central Missouri within 5-2. Iain Dykins appeared to have a base hit on a soft line drive to shallow left-center field. But Cooper made a running, leaping back-handed catch with his back to the infield for the first out. Jones got a pair of ground outs to finish the inning.
The seventh inning would be the last for Jones, who threw 102 pitches. He allowed five hits and one of the two runs was unearned. Jones struck out three and walked one.
"I was told two days ago that I would be starting today," said Jones, who had only two hours' notice in his first collegiate start May 18 against USC Aiken in the semifinal game of the South Atlantic Regional. "I didn't do anything special in preparation, other than just stay loose."
Todd Jeffreys, who had thrown 6 1/3 scoreless innings in this year's NCAA post-season, took over to start the bottom of the eighth, but was greeted with singles by Clay Weatherford and Feil. After Jeffreys retired the next batter on an infield fly, Williams took over on the mound. Blaine Rutledge singled up the middle to drive in Weatherford and give the Mules runners on first and third with clean-up batter at the plate representing the go-ahead run. But Williams got a strikeout and Lancaster chased a foul ball from left field, making the catch in the Central Missouri bullpen to end the rally.
Williams needed only four pitches to retire the first two batters in the bottom of the ninth on short fly outs. Mount Olive was within one strike of advancing to the national championship game, but Chris Brown drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch to keep Central Missouri's season alive. Weatherford was hit by a pitch to bring up Feil representing the winning run. Feil had three hits in his first four at-bats.
Ball, who retired all five batters he faced in the Trojans' first-round win against Ouachita Baptist, replaced Williams on the mound. Ball needed only one pitch to seal the win as Feil grounded the ball down the third base line to Racobaldo, who tagged third to end the game. Ball, who picked up the win in the tournament opener, earned his third save of the season.
Jones tossed a complete game four-hitter in his first-ever start. After pitching only 18 innings during the entire regular season, Jones has thrown 16 innings in NCAA Tournament play.
The come-from-behind victory was the Trojans' third in a row in the national finals and 29th overall this season. Cooper says the team wasn't spending much time celebrating Thursday's win.
"This game's over with," said Cooper. "We're already preparing for Saturday."