SAN MARCOS, Texas — The Southeastern Louisiana Lions rallied in the middle innings, then turned to their record-setting closer to down the University of Central Arkansas Bears, 6-3, in first-round action Wednesday night at the 2012 Southland Conference Baseball Tournament at Texas State’s Bobcat Ballpark.
The seventh-seeded Bears (25-29) led for 5 1/2 innings in their first postseason tournament appearance since moving to Division I. But once the second-seeded Lions (37-19) got the lead, reliever Dylan Hills and closer Stefan Lopez shut down the Bears, allowing one hit and striking out five over the final three innings, to earn a meeting with host Texas State on Thursday.
UCA committed four errors and did not score after the fourth inning. The Bears will face Stephen F. Austin, a loser to Texas State on Wednesday, at noon Thursday in an elimination game.
“Like I told the guys, we lost the freebies,’ said UCA head coach Allen Gum. “We had three walks, we hit them five times and we had four errors. And we only had three walks and they only had one error, so those were flipped. If we win those, bottom line is we win the game. And we were really one timely hit away.
“We hit the ball well but we just didn’t link enough of them together. We couldn’t get the timely hits when we needed them. But I’m proud of our guys. We played hard and gave everything we had. But it’s baseball. We just didn’t get the big hit when we need it and that’s how it goes sometimes."
After the Bears let the lead slip away in the sixth inning, they had to face the SLC reliever of the year. Lopez owns the SLC single-season and career records for saves and recorded his NCAA leading 20th against the Bears.
“They’re obviously very good on the back end,’ said Gum. “If you play them close and then they get the lead late, they’re tough. Lopez comes in and throws strikes and throws hard."
A Southeastern Louisiana error and a heads-up baserunning play by senior Travis Snider gave the Bears a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning. Snider singled up the middle and then came all the way around when SLU third baseman Brett Hoffman threw wide of first. Snider kept running and no one covered the plate as the Bears went up 1-0.
Snider scored the second run after leading off the fourth inning with a double to the left-field corner. He scored on Garrett Brown’s single to make it 2-1. Blake Roberts added a sacrifice fly, scoring Garrett Brown, for a 3-1 UCA advantage.
The Lions came back in the bottom of the inning with the help of two more UCA errors. An RBI double scored one run before McClanahan struck out Brock Hebert, the SLC Player of the Year, with a called third strike for the third out to preserve the 3-2 lead.
“He pitched well enough for us to win," Gum said. "He had an unbelievable pitch to strike out the best hitter in the conference there with the bases loaded."
UCA junior Ethan Harris led off the fifth with a stand-up double and but was stranded. The Lions got two runners on in the bottom of the fifth but McClanahan worked through another jam to preserve the lead for another inning.
Blake Roberts drew a one-out walk in the sixth and stole second base on Logan Moon’s strikeout. He went to third when Forrestt Allday singled off the pitcher but was stranded when Blake Marchal flew out to end the inning. SLU got its first runner on in the bottom of the inning and Harry Slade tied the game at 3-3 with a double to right center.
“I think one of the bad breaks we got was Forrestt hitting the pitcher," said Gum. “That ball goes through, we tie it back up and the momentum changes again."
Slade advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt before Hebert gave the Lions their first lead at 4-3 with an RBI single to left field. Bryce Biggerstaff relieved McClanahan and hit the first batter he faced, putting runners at first and second with one out. Consecutive fielder’s choice grounders got the Bears out of the inning.
Ethan Harris walked to lead off the seventh before Hills came on and got Bryan Willson to fly out to center field. He eventually reached third but Hills struck out Brown to end the threat.
The Lions added to their lead in the bottom of the seventh with a walk, a sacrifice bunt, a single and a sacrifice fly to center that made it 5-3. Dylan Owen relieved Biggerstaff and got the final out with one pitch as Hebert popped up to first base.
Hills struck out two and got Allday to ground out in the top of the eighth before handing the ball to Lopez, who set the Bears down in order in the ninth.
Marchal and Snider were both 2 for 4 for the Bears. Alex Marse went 3 for 4 for the Lions, while Slade and Ben Hernandez had two hits each.