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May 23, 2014

2014 SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE BASEBALL — Bearkats lack timely hits, bounced from postseason tournament

No. 4 Northwestern State defeats top-seed Sam Houston State 4-1 in elimination game

CONWAY, Ark. — The Bearkats got a bad dose of déjà vu on Friday.

In an eerily similar circumstance to last year’s Southland Conference tournament, 23rd-ranked Sam Houston State tried to stay alive after losing a winners’ bracket contest to Southeastern Louisiana.

Just like in that elimination game in 2013 against Lamar in which the Kats were no-hit for 8 2/3 innings, it wasn’t until the eighth that the Bearkats recorded their first hit on Friday morning.

Sam Houston wasn’t able to overcome its offensive shortcomings in the first seven innings as well as a pair of defensive lapses in the seventh that allowed three runs to score. The offense came too late and the Kats were eliminated from the conference tourney with a 4-1 loss to Northwestern State and a complete-game performance by Demons starting pitcher Steven Spann.

“Last year wasn’t in our heads,” said Bearkats third baseman Carter Burgess. “(Spann) came out and competed. You’ve just got to tip your cap sometimes.”

Trailing 4-0 with one out in the eighth, Sam Houston (41-17 overall) was still looking for its first hit of the game.

Bearkats first baseman Ryan O’Hearn didn’t disappoint and launched a 1-0 pitch from Spann over the right-field wall to put Sam Houston within 4-1 and snap the Kats’ 16-inning scoring drought.

That sparked a bit of a rally in the inning as catcher Anthony Azar reached base on an infield single and shortstop Corey Toups singled to left field and advanced to second on the play. That gave Sam Houston a pair of runners in scoring position with designated hitter Dirk Masters representing the tying run at the plate.

The Bearkats couldn’t get the hit they desperately needed as Masters grounded out to second base to end the inning.

Aside from a one-out single by second baseman Ryan Farney, the Kats were unable to get any rally going in the ninth.

“We were swinging at some balls that were up in the zone and we were hitting a lot of fly balls early,” Burgess said. “I think we started to try to do too much. Sometimes that will come back to bite you.”

After closing the regular season totaling 31 runs in the final weekend series against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and cruising for 10 runs in Wednesday’s first-round victory over Lamar, the Bearkats’ bats went cold in the final two games of the conference tournament.

Against Southeastern Louisiana and Northwestern State, the Kats connected for a combined 10 hits and scored just one run.

“You talk about how hitting comes and goes and ours disappeared for two days,” Sam Houston head coach David Pierce said. “So far this tournament hasn’t been very kind to us.”

The Demons (33-25) took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when designated hitter Nick Heath was hit with a pitch by Sam Houston State starting pitcher Jason Simms with the bases loaded.

The eighth inning is when the Demons broke the game open.

Heath led off the inning with a single through the right side of the infield, then catcher C.J. Webster was hit by a pitch.

Shortstop Joel Atkinson attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position, but Azar couldn’t get a handle on the ball off the turf and the bases were then loaded with no outs.

Pierce called in Ryan Brinley to relieve Simms and get the Kats out of the jam.

However, Demons second baseman Edwin Gomez hit a towering fly ball to left field for a sacrifice fly that brought in a run.

Following a groundout by center fielder Bret Underwood, Northwestern State scored two more runs when first baseman Caleb Dugas hit a grounder to short and Toups’ throw to first took O’Hearn off the bag for what would’ve been the final out of the inning. Webster scored on the play and Atkinson kept running before sliding home for an additional run.

“A big play late could have kept it a 2-1 game,” Pierce said.

Despite the Demons sending relievers to warm up, especially early in the game, Spann shook off troubling and pressure-packed innings to throw a complete game, including a potential no-hitter through 7 1/3 innings.

“I didn’t really figure out that I had a (no-hitter) going until about the seventh innings,” Spann said. “Guys were just away from me in the dugout, and people were like, ‘don’t talk to him.’ I told them I was fine, and asking why they were avoiding me. They were definitely avoiding me, wanting me to stay focused throughout the game.”

The Bearkats had a much different lineup against Northwestern State than they had for most of the season.

Dylan Ebbs started out in left field instead of Plucheck, Hayden Simerly was back in right field instead of Travis Lee with Dirk Masters batting in the role of designated hitter, Farney was playing at second instead of Shea Pierce and Burgess was batting at the No. 8 spot as opposed to hitting right after the clean-up hitter.

“The intent was to try and win the tournament,” the Kats coach said. “The reason why we did that is because we’ve got depth in our lineup. We have some role players who can step in and help. My intent was to try to split the game a little bit and utilize some guys and then come back and try to win the tournament. I don’t know if our starters could win four straight (in two days) on this turf and in this heat. I’m confident in the rest of our players. I just thought it was the right time and the right thing to do.”

Like the Bearkats had to do the last two seasons, they’ll to wait for a couple of days until Monday morning to find out if they qualified for the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection. The selection show for the NCAA tournament will be Monday on ESPNU at 11 a.m.

“We hope the committee has seen that we’ve done a lot,” Burgess said. “The regular-season title is going to help us out. Our resume is pretty good right now. I’m confident. We’ll just have to wait and see until Monday.”

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