A pair of fielding errors came back to haunt the Western Nevada College in a 6-4 loss to top-ranked Iowa Western at the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series on Monday.
A dropped pop fly led to three Iowa Western runs in the sixth inning and a mishandled ground ball in the ninth preceded a two-out, tie-breaking two-run homer by Iseha Conklin as the Reivers eliminated the sixth-rated Wildcats 6-4 in Grand Junction, Colo.
The Wildcats finished their third appearance at the World Series with a 48-17 record, the second time in school history that WNC has won that many games. WNC, which has six all-time victories in the NJCAA World Series, finished eighth in the 10-team field.
In the ninth inning, reliever Anthony Consiglio retired the first two Iowa Western hitters on ground balls to shortstop Chris Woolley, but pinch-hitter Tanner Krietemeir reached base when his ball hit up the middle deflected off Consiglio's glove, then off second baseman Zach Hendrix's mitt for an error. Reivers leadoff hitter Conklin, who was 0-4 to that point, then belted a homer to left to put Iowa Western ahead 6-4.
Bobby Pappin gave WNC some life in the bottom of the ninth when he reached base on third baseman Damek Tomscha's fielding error. But closer Keaton Steele set down the next three Wildcats, including Taylor Smart looking at strike three, to nail down the elimination-game victory.
Another turning point came in the sixth inning with WNC leading 2-1. Iowa Western gambled with aggressive base running in an attempt to rally. On a two-out single to left by Brandon Tierney, Steven Leonard went against the norm and tried to advance to third. The throw from Mike Umscheid skipped past third baseman Smart. Tierney moved to second on the throw, and a tiring Derrick Pitts walked Steele to fill the bases.
Whittemore elected to go to his bullpen, bringing in Tyler Spencer for his seventh relief appearance of the season. Catcher Neil Lawhorn blocked the first pitch in the dirt but wasn't as fortunate on Spencer's fourth offering to Gabriel De Varona, which got past the sophomore catcher for a wild pitch and allowed Leonard to truck home with the tying run.
Spencer's wildness continued as he walked De Varona after being ahead 1-2. But after falling behind Alex Greer 2-0, Spencer fought back to even the count and made him sky a pop fly to the first-base side. However, first baseman Rayne Raven couldn't come up with the inning-ending grab as the ball hit off the heel of his glove and hit the ground, permitting Tierney and Steele to score the go-ahead runs. Spencer kept the score at 4-2 as Sam Bumpers was retired on a foul out to Ness.
The momentum shift and misfortune didn't linger with the Wildcats.
In the seventh, Raven drew a leadoff walk from Jake Thompson, ending Iowa Western starter's afternoon. Pinch-hitter Cole Ferguson greeted reliever Kyle Gehrs by hammering a ball off a base umpire, putting runners on first and second bases. With Bobby Pappin attempting to bunt, Gehrs hit him with the first pitch to load the bases. Neil Lawhorn grounded into a double play to score Raven from third, and Woolley delivered a pivotal two-out base hit to right to score pinch-runner Philip Belding to knot the score at 4.
Brandon Jackson took over for Spencer in the eighth, making a relief appearance for the second straight day. After a leadoff single to center by Levi Meyer, Jackson got out of the inning with back-to-back ground balls, the second of which was turned for a double play.
WNC missed a chance to go ahead in the eighth, putting two runners on base with two outs. A base hit by Hendrix and walk to Raven meant that Whittemore was forced to make a decision whether to keep Jackson in the game or pinch-hit for him. Whittemore decided to bring in Bobby Gazzola off the bench to hit for Jackson, and he bounced out to the pitcher for the final out.
The starting pitchers dominated the early going, even though many of the outs were hard hit to the outfield.
Western Nevada was the first team to put a runner on second base in the third inning. Thompson retired the first six Wildcats but encountered some resistance in the third. Umscheid led off with a base hit to right field and moved to second on a one-out walk to Lawhorn. But Thompson retired Woolley on a deep fly to right and got Smart to hit into a fielder's choice on a ball that ricocheted off the pitcher's glove.
The Wildcats continued to put runners on base against Thompson in the fourth. Following a deep fly out to center field by Pitts, Hendrix stroked a double over left fielder Leonard's head. Thompson balked Hendrix to third by stepping off the mound prematurely on a 3-0 count to Dillon Ness. Following a four-pitch walk to Ness, Whittemore put on a safety squeeze and Raven executed, bunting the pitch to the right side, enabling Hendrix to cross the plate with the first run. The Wildcats nearly added a second run, but Ness was thrown out at the plate by right fielder Greer on Umscheid's second consecutive hit.
However, Greer complemented his defensive gem with some offensive fireworks in the fifth, taking a 2-2 offering from Pitts over the left-field fence for a game-tying homer. Prior to the homer, Pitts had retired seven batters in a row, including four on strikes.
A sharply struck base hit to left by Bumpers put the WNC bullpen into action. But Pitts prevented further damage by getting leadoff hitter Conklin for the third time on a groundout to Woolley.
Pappin restored WNC's one-run lead by hitting a 2-2 pitch more than 400 feet over the fence in left center for a solo homer. It was Pappin's third home run of the season.
Hendrix and Umscheid each collected two hits for the Wildcats, who produced seven overall against three Reivers pitchers.
It was the Wildcats third straight game against teams ranked among the top 5 in the latest NJCAA poll.