Walk-Off Grand Slam by Danny Infante Keeps Cloud County Baseball Team in Region VI Playoffs
In the biggest moment of his Cloud County baseball career, freshman infielder Danny Infante would make a Hollywood ending a reality on Thursday by sending a 3-2, bases-loaded pitch up over the left-field wall of Lee Doyen Field to hit a walk-off, game-winning grand slam to give the T-Birds a 6-5 win over Neosho County Community College in game two of the NJCAA Region VI Playoffs.
Forcing a decisive, winner-take-all game three on Friday afternoon, the T-Birds pick up their 40th win of the season to improve to 40-16 overall while Neosho falls to 25-32 overall on the year.
Call it improbable, unbelievable, or any other adjective that may describe the euphoria that encapsulated Cloud County just past the 5 PM mark as all six runs scored by Cloud County would come in the final four innings to overcome deficits of 3-0 and 5-1 in the contest. The early deficit for CCCC would begin once again in the top of the first inning as a check-swing single that would ride the third-base line before stopping in fair territory would start a two-hit inning that would see each of the first three batters safely reach base. Trying to work around the bases loaded and no outs, T-Bird starting pitcher Christian Womble would get a strikeout before allowing a run to come home on a walk to make the score 1-0. Limiting the damage to just the one run, Womble would strike out the final two batters of the inning to escape the inning.
A chance to tie the game in the bottom of the first, CCCC would get a two-out double from Infante into the left-center field gap but see the inning end on a strikeout. Two more strikeouts for Womble on the mound in the second would give the Pittsfield, Massachusetts native five strikeouts through two innings as both teams would strand a leadoff base runner in the second inning to keep things at a one-run deficit.
After being held without a home run on Wednesday, NCCC would take advantage of a brisk wind blowing from right field to left field with a two-out solo home run in the top of the third inning that would double their lead to 2-0. Still searching for some offensive momentum, Cloud County would be unable to turn a two-out base runner in Ian Riley into anything productive following a bunt attempt that would lead to a throwing error as the Austin, Texas native would be stranded on base.
Facing more trouble in the top of the fourth, Womble would see a leadoff walk and sacrifice bunt put a runner in scoring position for Neosho before issuing another walk to put a pair of runners on base. A strikeout that would also see a passed ball would allow both runners to advance 90 feet and into scoring position, but the potential rally would end there for the Panthers with an infield popup ending the inning.
Retired in order for the first time on the afternoon, the T-Birds would head into the top of the fifth still trying to find a way to flip momentum as NCCC would seemingly have control of the game following another run in their next at-bat with a pair of one-out walks leading to an RBI groundout to make it 3-0. Stranding yet another runner following a two-out single from catcher Ty Wevers, Cloud County would be unable to cut into the lead in the bottom of the fifth but manage to hold the Panthers scoreless in the top of the sixth after bringing in Joel Benes to relieve Womble.
Still seeking their first run of the game after scoring 10 the day before, CCCC would see freshman Tom Poole follow up a two-homer, six-RBI performance on Wednesday by launching a two-out solo home run over the left-center field fence to break the single-season school record for home runs after tying the previous record-holder Rico Gholston just 24 hours prior. The lone run would give the T-Birds some life as the deficit would cut back down to two with things heading into the final three innings of play.
Answering the solo home run by Poole in the sixth, Neosho would hit their second solo home run of the day in the top of the seventh with Brooks Miller going yard to nearly the exact same spot as Poole to kick off a two-run inning with the Panthers also getting a one-out triple and RBI single to take their largest lead of the game at 5-1. Starting to have their opportunities at the plate become fewer and fewer, Cloud County would get a one-out single from Garrett Redden in the bottom of the seventh but wind up ending the inning on a strikeout and groundout to strand the runner.
Making another call to the bullpen, CCCC would turn to one of their top remaining arms on the pitching staff with their season on the line as sophomore Rans Sanders would come in and get a one-two-three inning to retire the Panthers in order for the first time all game. Neosho would then make a call of their own to the bullpen after a 100-plus pitch performance from starter Brady Pacha which would prove to be another spark the T-Birds would need. With the top of the order due up, sophomore Adler Pierson would be hit by a pitch to reclaim the career record with his 31st hit-by-pitch in his career to break a tie with Redden before advancing to second on a balk on a pickoff move. A groundout from Riley to the right side of the infield managed to move Pierson into scoring position before seeing Infante draw a walk to put some pressure on the NCCC defense with one out. A strikeout by Poole would get Neosho one out away from getting out of the jam, but not before redshirt freshman Brock Wollin would bring home a run on an RBI double to score Pierson and bring the game-tying run to the plate. The rally would end there however as a strikeout would end the inning and look to be a momentum killer for the T-Birds who were finally starting to come alive.
Pitching another scoreless inning in the top of the ninth, Sanders would once again do his job on the mound to give the T-Birds a chance as the deficit would remain three with CCCC down to their final three outs. Drawing a four-pitch walk to lead off the inning Redden would get on base before seeing the next two pitches miss out of the zone to Griffin Stuewe to force a pitching change in the middle of the at-bat. Following the move to the bullpen, Stuewe would take a first-pitch strike from reliever Jake Beckmann before hitting a ground ball back up the middle to put two runners on with no outs.
The game would then endure a 15-minute delay as the NCCC coaching staff would argue that the T-Birds had an incorrect lineup due to the earlier change with Benes coming in to pitch from the designated hitter spot, with the decision following the delay coming away with good news for CCCC. Now having the game-tying runner at the plate, Neosho would get a massive first out with a strikeout before seeing Pierson nearly tie the game on a ball hit to the warning track in left field for the second out of the inning. Down to their final strike with Riley at the plate, the Panthers would load the bases with a hit-by-pitch to bring up Infante who showed home run power the day before with a solo home run in game one on Wednesday. Falling behind in the count 1-2 and down to their final strike yet again, the Brooklyn, New York native would show patience to lay off of two pitches out of the zone before spoiling two pitches out of play to continue a battle at the plate. Seeing his eighth pitch of the at-bat and third on a 3-2 count, Infante would straighten out his previous two swings to get out in front and turn on the pitch while also getting under the ball enough to ensure that it had both the height and distance to clear the elevated left-field wall to send the Cloud County dugout into a walk-off frenzy with a game-winning grand slam.
Accounting for two of the eight hits recorded by the T-Birds, day two here Infante would drive in a game-high four RBIs and also draw a walk to reach base three times in five plate appearances. Wollin would finish as the only other CCCC player with multiple hits and drove in one of the other two runs for Cloud County including one of the two remaining extra-base hits not recorded by Infante.
Finishing the day on 100 total pitches to take a no-decision, Womble would finish with eight strikeouts but be hurt by seven walks as Neosho would score three runs off three hits against the sophomore. The final two Panther runs would be tagged to Benes after allowing three hits and a walk on 37 pitches while Sanders would need just 17 pitches to work a scoreless eighth and ninth innings to pick up his third win of the year.
Simply put, elimination is on the line for both Cloud County and Neosho tomorrow afternoon at 2 PM as the T-Birds and Panthers will play a decisive game three at Lee Doyen Field. The winner of tomorrow's contest will be the eighth and final team to advance to next week's NJCAA Plains District Tournament as the other seven best-of-three series that made up the opening round of the tournament were all completed on Thursday with 2-0 sweeps by schools that had won on Wednesday. Number three-seed in the tournament Kansas City Kansas Community College awaits the winner of CCCC/NCCC for the opening game on Tuesday, May 17th at Tointon Family Field in Manhattan, Kansas.