CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — With a berth to the NAIA national tournament hanging in the balance, the University of Rio Grande found itself down six runs in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes, though, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Clayton Surrell scored on a one-out infield single by Michael Rodriguez in the bottom of the 12th inning to give the RedStorm a 7-6 win over Indiana University Kokomo in the championship second final of the 2019 River States Conference Baseball Championship, Sunday afternoon, at VA Memorial Stadium.
Rio Grande, the tournament’s No. 4 seed, improved to 38-19 with the victory and earned a trip to the NAIA Baseball National Championship Opening Round in the process.
The RedStorm will learn where they’re heading and who they’ll be facing in an online presentation from the NAIA on Thursday at 5 p.m. EDT.
IU Kokomo, which put Rio Grande into the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination tourney with a 9-4 opening round win on Thursday night, slipped to 36-17 with the loss.
The Cougars looked as if they’d shrugged off any after effects of a 7-5 loss in Sunday’s first final, scoring six times in the first inning off Rio sophomore starter Caine Whitney (Newark, OH) who, ironically, tossed the final two innings of the first game to earn a save.
IUK’s big first inning included a two-run double by Dalton Clarke and a three-run, pinch-hit double by Mark Goudy.
Rio Grande slowly picked away at the lead, though, scoring once in the first, third, fifth, seventh and eighth innings before finally tying the game in the bottom of the ninth when junior Kent Reeser (Miamisburg, OH) led off with a single, stole second and rode on a base hit to left by junior Caden Cluxton (Washington Court House, OH).
While the RedStorm offense was busy slowly chipping away at the deficit, the Cougar offensive attack was held in check by Rio freshman reliever Victor Feliz (Santo Domingo, D.R.).
Feliz, who’d thrown just 11-2/3 innings all season and walked seven batters, allowed eight hits and struck out six over eight scoreless innings of relief.
Feliz gave way to senior Zach Harvey (Kenova, WV), the RSC Pitcher of the Year and the loser of Thursday’s opening round matchup, when IUK put two on with one out in the ninth inning.
Harvey induced Clarke into a groundout at second, which moved both runners into scoring position, but the threat died when he fanned Austin Weiler to end the inning.
The strikeout was one of nine that Harvey recorded in his 3-2/3 inning stint of scoreless relief.
Rio’s winning rally in the 12th came off of Noah Richardson, the last of three pitchers for the Cougars.
Surrell, a freshman from Carroll, Ohio, reached on a one-out error and moved to third on a perfectly executed hit-and-run single to right by senior David Rodriguez (Santo Domingo, D.R.), who earlier had shaved the deficit to 6-5 with a leadoff home run in the eighth inning.
Michael Rodriguez, also a senior from Santo Domingo, D.R., who had struck out in each of his first five at-bats in the contest, hit a hard groundball on Richardson’s first offering to shortstop Kody Bledsoe, who made a diving stop of the ball.
But as Bledsoe bounced up to make a throw home, the ball popped out of his hand and Surrell slid safely across the plate with the winning run.
David Rodriguez finished 3-for-5 with two runs batted in, while Surrell had two hits and two RBIs. Junior Dylan Shockley (Minford, OH) tripled, doubled and drove in a run, while Cluxton also had two hits and an RBI.
The win for Harvey was his 12th in 16 decisions and allowed him to tie the single-season school record for wins held jointly by Tyler Schunk and Ryan Robertson, both of whom turned the trick in 2010.
Richardson suffered the loss for the Cougars, despite striking out five over 2-1/3 innings of work.
Tavon Lindsay had three hits in a losing cause for IUK, while Clark finished 2-for-6.
In Sunday’s first final, Rio Grande rallied from a trio of early one-run deficits before scoring four times in the fifth inning to take a lead it would never relinquish.
The Cougars scored once in the home seventh to get within 7-5, but Whitney allowed just one hits and fanned two over the final two innings to secure the win for the RedStorm.
Sophomore Caleb Fetzer (Van Wert, OH), making his first start of the season, earned the win for Rio. He allowed 10 hits and all five runs over seven innings.
IUK starter Clarke Davenport took the loss, allowing 10 hits and seven runs oer 4-2/3 innings.
Cluxton went 2-for-4 with two RBIs, while Michael Rodriguez, junior Eli Daniels (Minford, OH) and Reeser all had two hits in the victory. Michael Rodriguez and David Rodriguez both doubled and Shockley knocked in a pair of runs in the pivotal four-run fifth.
Noah Darr went 3-for-5 with a home run, a double and two RBIs, while Clarke also went 3-for-5 with a homer and a double in a losing cause for the Cougars.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.