SUGAR LAND, Texas — The second-seeded University of Central Arkansas Bears came up a couple of runs short of a Southland Conference championship Saturday at Constellation Field.
The Bears, who had to win a 10-inning elimination game earlier in the day to reach the championship, dropped a 4-2 decision to the well-rested, fifth-seeded McNeese Cowboys on a hot, humid day.
The Bears were playing in their fourth title game since the 2013 season, while the Cowboys won their first title since 2003 and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
McNeese went 3-0 on its side of the tournament bracket and avoided an elimination game on Saturday prior to the championship matchup.
UCA (32-27) reached the final despite losing 11 seniors and two junior MLB draftees from last year's squad.
The Bears, with 21 new players and just one returning position starter, started the 2019 season with a 4-9 record before rallying to win a school-record 19 SLC games and earn a school-best No. 2 seed in the tournament.
"I think we just ran out of bullets a little bit,” said UCA coach Allen Gum, who won his 500th career game two weeks ago and has led the Bears to all four of their championship game appearances. "They had some top-line guys (left). The lefty they started was fresh and the lefty on the back end was pretty fresh. They didn't have to play an extra game and I think that was the difference.
"That one extra game... if we didn't have to play that, maybe it would have been a little bit different.”
The Bears took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning on junior Beau Orlando's RBI single that scored senior Tyler Smith.
UCA could have had more, with the bases loaded and two outs, but junior shortstop Christian Brasher blistered a line drive that McNeese shortstop Ryan Bourque snagged for the third out.
"I think the biggest break in the game was when we had bases loaded, 3-2 count, everybody's running, and Brasher hits a line drive right at the shortstop,” Gum said. “If that goes five foot to the left or five foot to the right, it's a whole other ballgame. We expand the lead and go from there. It's just one of those things. It went right to him and he made a good catch in the sun. And that's just baseball. It wasn't kind to us right there.”
The Cowboys tied it in the bottom of the inning before UCA starter Tanner Wiley worked out of a jam with runners at second and third.
Wiley went six innings on the mound, striking out five and allowing two runs while also serving as the designated hitter.
For the tournament, Wiley hit .529 with nine hits, seven RBI and five walks to earn All-Tournament honors.
All-Tournament honors also went to record-setting senior pitcher Cody Davenport, who had a complete-game shutout in UCA's opening game Wednesday and closed out Saturday's elimination game win over Southeastern Louisiana, junior third baseman Orlando, who hit .421 with eight hits, senior second baseman Jay Anderson, who hit .368.
The game remained tied until the seventh when the Cowboys plated three runs on four hits and a pair of UCA errors.
But the Bears were not finished, cutting the deficit to 4-2 in the eighth.
Ragan led off with an infield single and Orlando walked.
McNeese replaced ace Aiden Anderson and Wiley greeted reliever Will Dion with an RBI single to left field.
Orlando reached third base before a strikeout ended the threat.
"Man, I can't say enough for our guys, just the journey we've been on,” said Gum, whose team played three of its last four SLC series on the road, with long road trips to Incarnate Word, Lamar and then straight to Sugar Land. "No one else has done what we've done. We've been on the road for a month. We've been in a hotel for 12 days straight, and then the long road trips the whole month. But the guys just bonded together and fought and fought and fought. And just came up a little bit short.
"I'm proud of them. These seniors, what a class act. And what a tough group of guys. The toughness on our team is just tremendous. We just didn't quite have it today. Their Friday guy came back in, Anderson, and he was tough to deal with and just shut us down. But overall, looking at the whole season and where we started and where we ended, it's amazing how far we came.
"With just tough, hard-nosed baseball players that loved each other and cared about each other.”
The Bears showed that resiliency again Saturday, competing for 19 innings of quality tournament baseball.
"They (McNeese) took that lead at 4-1 and it could have been easy to get your head down,” Gum said "But, we come right back and we were one big hit away from tying the ball game up. That's what they did all year. They stayed close and found a way to win ball games, and this one we just came up a little bit short.”