ABILENE -- Of all the growing pains the young ACU baseball team has endured throughout the 2014 season, the lessons learned from the narrow, kick-in-the-gut loss have been the hardest to take.
Case in point: Saturday's 5-4 loss to Lamar at Crutcher Scott Field.
The Wildcats fell behind 4-1, battled back with three runs in the seventh only to see Lamar regain a 5-4 lead in the eighth thanks to a bases-loaded, two-out, two-strike hit by pitch that forced in the eventual game-winning run. Then the Wildcats let a golden opportunity to tie the game or take the lead slip through their grasp in the bottom of the eighth, forcing them to endure their sixth loss of the season by either one or two runs.
The one-run loss (ACU is now 4-3 in one-run games this season) drops the Wildcats to 12-15 overall and 2-3 in the Southland conference, while Lamar improve to 17-14 and 4-7. The teams will finish out the series Sunday with a 1 p.m. game at Crutcher Scott Field.
As has been the case lately, the Wildcats fell behind early (2-0 after the top of the first), but came roaring back late to make things interesting.
After the Cardinals forced ACU starting pitcher Mack Morgan from the game after the second inning by scoring three runs on four walks, one hit batter and a pair of hits, ACU relief pitcher Nate Cole settled things down for the Wildcats. Cole, in fact, scattered five hits and struck out five Cardinals over five strong innings of relief.
It was his work on the mound that allowed ACU's offense to piece together a threat in the seventh that got the Wildcats back in the game. With one out and Taylor Waters at first, Colton Hall singled to center to send Waters to second. Tyler Eager then loaded the bases with a single to left field before Aaron Draper grounded out to third base, driving in Waters to make it a 4-2 game.
That's when J.T. Autrey came into the game and intentionally walked Seth Spivey to load the bases before he faced the man he was brought into the game to face: right-handed hitting third baseman Brandon Grudzielanek. Autrey did, indeed, strike out Grudzielanek to end the inning, but not before fireworks during the at-bat that allowed the Wildcats to tie the game.
Autrey quickly jumped ahead of Grudzielanek 0-2 before delivering back-to-back wild pitches that allowed Hall and then Eager to score to tie the game, 4-4.
Cole then went back to the mound in the top of the eighth and immediately gave up a single to Mason Salazar to lead off the inning before giving way to ACU's second reliever of the day, Kevin Sheets. Sheets got Justin Eckols to pop up into foul territory near the ACU dugout on a sacrifice bunt attempt that looked as if it would drop for a foul ball. But Spivey leapt out of his crouch behind the plate, sprinted toward the dugout and dove headlong to make the catch for the first out.
But Sheets loaded the bases on a single by Jude Vidrine and a walk to Reed Seeley. However, he retired shortstop Sam Bumpers on a strikeout and quickly got ahead of cleanup hitter Kevin Santana 1-2 as he tried to send the game to the bottom of the eighth still tied at 4-4. But a 1-2 fastball was a little too far up and in and it hit Santana on the left wrist, forcing in Salazar with the go-ahead run.
Autrey's adventure on the mound continued in the bottom of the eighth as he hit Gunnar Buhner and Emil Litterer to lead off the inning to give ACU the the tying and go-ahead runs on base with no outs. That marked the end of Autrey's day on the mound and brought in closer Danny Fernandez, who recorded the first out of the inning when Heath Beasley droppe down a sacrifice bunt that moved both ACU baserunners into scoring position.
However, Fernandez bore down on the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters in the Wildcats' lineup, getting both Taylor Waters and Colton Hall to strike out swinging to end the inning and the threat. In the ninth, Fernandez gave up a one-out infield single to Aaron Draoper, but got Spivey to bounce into a game-ending double play as he picked up his fourth save of the season.
Amazingly, Autrey was the pitcher of record when the Cardinals scored their winning run and was credited with the win, despite the fact that he hit two batters, threw two wild pitches, let the tying run score in the seventh and intentionally walked a batter. Cole, meanwhile, was the hard-luck loser as he drops to 1-5 for the Wildcats.