MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — Second-ranked Gordon State stuck first in Wednesday's opening game of the NJCAA East Central District Series against third-ranked Walters State, but it was the homestanding Senators that had the last laugh.
Walters State fell behind 2-0 in the first inning but scored a run in five of the first six innings and watched the bullpen arms of Blake Petty and Kody Davidson hold off the Highlanders for a 5-2 victory at Ken Campbell Field.
With the win, the Senators have won 11 of their last 13 games and improved to 51-9 on the year while also moving within a win of making a return trip to the Alpine Bank JUCO World Series for the second straight season and the ninth time in program history.
The loss puts the Highlanders on the brink of elimination, as their 25-game winning streak was snapped in falling to 50-8 on the year. Gordon State would need a victory in Thursday's second game and Friday's if necessary game to reach the World Series for the second time in program history.
The Highlanders got on the board first in the opening frame, as Jesse Sherrill singled to lead off and worked his way to third on a sacrifice bunt and a grounder before Cole Phillips cleared the wall in left-center for his 13th homer of the season, giving Gordon State a 2-0 lead.
The Senators responded with a run in the bottom half of the first, but couldn't get anything more despite having the bases loaded with one out. Drew Haynie worked a 12-pitch at-bat before roping a double to the left-center gap, but he was erased on a fielder's choice grounder by Jerry Hammons. After a single from Bryce Hodge and a walk drawn by Braydon Runion, Brayden Combs drove in Hammons with a sacrifice fly to make it 2-1.
Walters State knotted the score at 2 in the second on an unearned run. JL Bland made his way to second after his chopper to the mound was thrown into right field by Highlander starting pitcher Dominic Canale, and Bland scored on two-out RBI single by Haynie to pull the Senators even.
Alex Haynes worked a pair of scoreless innings in the third and fourth frames, notching his 100th strikeout of the season in the fourth, and his teammates gave him the lead in the home half of that inning.
Michael Robinson, Bland and Mason Streater all singled to load the bases with no outs, and Xavier Arnette plated Robinson with a sacrifice fly to left-center, putting WSCC on top 3-2. Canale limited the damage with a strikeout and grounder to keep it a one-run margin.
Haynes allowed two base runners in the fifth on a leadoff error and a walk before getting a pop up of the first out. Petty came on in relief with two runners on and one out to face Phillips, who he got to pop out before Ethan Scott fanned to end the threat.
Walters State added to the lead in the bottom of the fifth with another two-out run scoring hit. Hodge led off with a single and moved to second on a wild pitch with two outs before Robinson smoked a single to center and Hodge slid under the tag at the plate to score and make it 4-2. Bland was robbed of a home run on a leaping catch at the wall by Phillips to keep it a two-run lead.
Petty worked the first perfect inning of the game in the sixth, and the Senators padded the lead once more in the home half. Streater reached on a leadoff error on a grounder before Arnette walked and brought an end to the day for Canale. Cory Newsome came in out of the bullpen and allowed a bunt single to Haynie before Hammons drove in Streater with a fielder's choice to make it 5-2.
Petty got the first two outs of the seventh before allowing a double to Brennen Berger before getting the final out on a fly ball. Jay Pendley entered in relief for the Highlanders and allowed a two-out walk in the seventh and a two-out single in the eighth but kept the margin at three runs.
Davidson got the final two outs of the eighth in relief of Petty after a 25-minute delay for a substitution ruling, and he issued a leadoff walk in the ninth before getting a strikeout, pop up and another strikeout to end the game and record a save in consecutive games.
Haynie and Hodge both had three hits in the win, while Robinson added two hits in the victory. Haynie had a double in the contest and drove in a run, as did Hammons, Combs, Robinson and Arnette.
Sherrill had two this in the loss, while Phillips went deep, Jason Fointno added a double and Brian Davis singled for the five hits for the visitors.
Petty (4-0) picked up the win after allowing just one hit and hitting one batter while striking out three in three innings of work. Davidson notched his second save of the year with 1 2/3 innings of hitless relief, walking one and fanning three batters. Haynes surrendered two earned runs on four hits with six strikeouts and three walks in 4 1/3 innings.
Canale (10-1) suffered his first loss by giving up five runs (three earned) on nine hits with four strikeouts and three walks in five-plus innings. Newsome worked one inning and gave up a hit and a walk, while Pendley tossed two scoreless innings of relief with three strikeouts and one walk and giving up one hit.
Game two of the series is set for Thursday, with first pitch scheduled for 2 p.m. A win by Gordon State would force a winner takes all third game on Friday. A win by Walters State would make the Senators the sixth team to qualify for the 10-team World Series, joining Monroe (32-17), Chattahoochee Valley (35-18), New Mexico (42-15), Navarro (38-16) and two-time defending national champion Chipola (38-18).