Southern squanders 4-0 lead to fall in tournament opener
Through seven innings, they weren’t exactly at their best. Still, the Southern Jaguars were doing well enough.
On the first day of the all-important Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball tournament, in the comforts of their own ballpark, they had a four-run lead over Mississippi Valley State. Starting pitcher Jesse Holiday was cruising. They were closing in on their 17th consecutive victory.
Then the eighth inning began. And everything fell apart.
In a disastrous turn of events for Southern, the Delta Devils rallied to tie the score in the eighth, then pulled ahead in the ninth for a shocking 6-4 victory at Lee-Hines Field, leaving the favored Jaguars one game away from elimination.
“Life goes on. Lesson learned,” SU coach Roger Cador said. “Hopefully, it was a good lesson learned.”
The Jaguars have to hope that they didn’t learn it too late.
Their 16-game winning streak is over now. Before long, their season might be over, too.
To reach the championship game, Southern — which entered this tournament as the Western Division champion — will have to win four times in three days.
The Jaguars’ prospective journey begins at 9 a.m. Thursday with an elimination game against archrival Grambling (22-25), which swept a three-game series at SU in March (the Jaguars returned the favor a month later, sweeping the Tigers at Grambling).
Right-hander Jose De Leon (7-3) will start for Southern. The Tigers figure to counter with former Christian Life standout Matt Mitchell (6-3).
That the Jaguars (31-15) find themselves in this position is almost unthinkable. They were facing a Valley team that lost nine consecutive games heading into this week’s tournament. The Delta Devils (15-38) finished fourth in the Eastern Division and clinched a berth in the SWAC tournament almost by default; after all, the fifth-place team, Alabama A&M, had one victory in divisional play all season.
Southern started Wednesday’s game well enough — even if its hitters weren’t piling up runs against Devils starter Kameron Stady.
The Jaguars took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Cameron McGriff scored on an RBI fielder’s choice by DeMario Ellis.
They scored two more runs in the fourth, aided in part by Stady’s two throwing errors, then added one more in the fifth, when McGriff scored from third on a wild pitch.
“We were ahead, but we only had five good swings today,” Cador said. “I mean, when you do that, you don’t expect to win. The hits we got, we were fortunate. They were rollers and dribblers. We need a better approach.”
Meanwhile, the Devils were still in it — and all along, they hoped to work the count and outlast Holiday.
“We’d made a couple errors there, but we were still in the ballgame,” said first baseman Joe Germaine, who drove in five of Valley’s six runs.
“We knew we could play with anybody right then, because we were still in it, even though we’d messed up a couple times. We knew if we got a couple hits, we were going to be right back in it.”
Holiday was masterful through seven shutout innings, retiring 11 straight batters at one point.
But he lost control in the eighth.
Cador said afterward that he hoped to get Holiday through the eighth with the 4-0 lead. Had that happened, the Jaguars could’ve used any number of relievers to get the final three outs, then move on with a strong, rested pitching staff for the rest of the tournament.
But Cador didn’t entirely trust his bullpen.
Yes, closer Josh Powell led the SWAC with seven saves — he was named to the all-conference first team Wednesday — but he had struggled with control in four recent outings.
“He has not thrown a lot of strikes lately,” Cador said. “I was hoping Jesse could get us one more out. Then we could start the (ninth) inning with him, and that would give us some leeway.”
But with two outs in the eighth, Holiday loaded the bases. Then he served up a three-run double to Germaine, and Valley was within one, 4-3.
Cador sent in Powell, who gave up two walks and an RBI single, tying the score at 4-4.
From there, Daniel Garcia took the mound. Although he got a ground out to end the eighth inning, Garcia also struggled with command.
In the ninth, he loaded the bases, setting the table for Germaine.
Germaine hit a full-count grounder through the left side of the infield, scoring two runs and giving the Devils a 6-4 lead.
Sidearm reliever Cody Parker took care of the rest, throwing a 1-2-3 ninth.
Valley gave Southern an early wake-up call Wednesday, upsetting the Jaguars on the first day of the tournament.
Now they’ll have early another wake-up call: a 9 a.m. game against Grambling, with their season hanging in the balance.