Pitcher De Leon, all-around effort help Southern blank Grambling, 8-0
Jose De Leon was masterful, the defense made plays, and the offense did enough.
Now, to survive another round of the Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball tournament, Southern must put in another long, broiling day of work.
In an elimination game Thursday morning at Lee-Hines Field, the Jaguars took advantage of seven Grambling errors, and De Leon fired a complete-game shutout in an 8-0 victory that sent the archrival Tigers home after two games.
Southern, meanwhile, prepared for a pivotal day in its own ballpark. At 9 a.m. Friday, the Jaguars (32-15) face off against Alcorn State (18-36) — the team that knocked them out of last year’s tournament.
Alcorn fell into Friday’s elimination game after a 7-6 loss to surprising Mississippi Valley State in 12 innings.
If the Jaguars win, they’ll play again at 3 p.m. Friday against the Delta Devils, who came into this tournament on a nine-game losing streak, but remain undefeated after two days in Baton Rouge.
Southern has certainly put itself in a tough spot. But Roger Cador has faith.
“I’ve had to do it many times in my career, and we’ve been OK with it,” said the longtime Southern coach, who’s searching for his 15th conference title in 28 years. “We’ll see if we can make something happen.”
They’ve done it before.
In 2005, at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., the Jaguars fell into the losers bracket. They responded with a 6-0 victory on a Sunday against Prairie View, then prevailed 6-5 over the Panthers in a game that lasted 15 innings and spanned two days (play was suspended late Sunday night after gunfire rang out on a nearby street).
In 2009, at Lee-Hines Field, the Jaguars lost once to Grambling, then trailed the Tigers by eight runs in an elimination game. Southern mounted a stirring rally and won in 12 innings, then returned to the ballpark less than 16 hours later and outlasted Alcorn State 12-10 in the championship game.
Now, on Friday, the Jaguars must win twice.
After Thursday morning’s win against Grambling, they could take some comfort in at least one important fact: Their pitching staff is in relatively good shape, thanks to De Leon’s gut-check performance.
De Leon, a powerful right-handed sophomore from Isabela, Puerto Rico, wasn’t at his best; he struggled with his fastball in the early innings and he allowed base runners in seven of nine innings. But his infield turned three double plays, and De Leon (8-3) found ways to stay out of trouble.
He went the distance, throwing 127 pitches. De Leon gave up seven hits and three walks, but he also fired eight strikeouts.
That gave him 103 strikeouts for the season — the most in one season for a pitcher in the Cador era. (Terrence Hill held the previous single-season record with 92 strikeouts in 1998.)
“I had to give the team a chance to win,” De Leon said. “I had to put together a good effort and have confidence to help the team win. That was really on my mind.”
Last season, as a freshman, De Leon lost the championship game to Alcorn, 12-6. In Thursday’s elimination game, he said, he didn’t feel as much pressure.
It didn’t hurt that his teammates gave him an early lead.
Before the first pitch, Cador decided to bench leadoff hitter Taylor Roy, a team leader who apparently has a leg injury. He replaced Roy with Tyler Kirksey, who batted .167 in 10 games this season.
Kirksey led off the game with an infield single, stole second, advanced to third on an error, then scored on a wild pitch by Grambling starter Matt Mitchell (6-4), the former Christian Life standout.
“Probably about 10 minutes before the game, coach told me I was going to be in the lineup. I was ready,” Kirksey said. “If you’re always ready, you don’t need to waste time getting ready.”
The Jaguars’ offense was hardly exceptional Thursday; they managed only two infield hits through the first five innings. But they took a 4-0 lead by scoring three runs in the fourth, thanks in large part to three key Grambling errors.
“We’ve lost some of our timing. We really don’t look very good swinging the bat right now,” Cador said. “That’s something we’re going to try to work out.”
Southern added three more runs in the eighth to take a 7-0 lead. That allowed Cador to stick with De Leon through the rest of the game, saving the bullpen for another time.
That time will likely come Friday, when the Jaguars must win twice.