SCOOBA – The Lions of East Mississippi Community College concluded their 2016 baseball season on a positive note by claiming a 6-5 comeback victory during Tuesday's nightcap to earn a season-ending home doubleheader split with Southwest Mississippi at Gerald Poole Field. EMCC was able to recover nicely after dropping the high-scoring opener, 15-14, in 11 innings despite having an early lead.
With both teams essentially playing for pride after not making the eight-team MACJC postseason playoff field, the visitors bounced back from a 10-4 deficit to pull out the extra-inning win in the opener. The home-standing Lions then rallied from a 5-1 deficit to score five runs in their final two at-bats to salvage the nightcap victory and earn the competitive twin-bill split.
Limited to just five home doubleheaders on the Scooba campus because of tornado damage sustained to their home facility just prior to the start of the season, head coach Chris Rose's EMCC Lions finished with a 16-28 overall record and 12-16 MACJC mark. While playing their first 28 games of the season away from campus, half of the team's 44 decisions on the year were decided by one or two runs. Thus, it was very appropriate that East Mississippi's final games of the season both came down to the wire.
After squandering a six-run lead in their opening-game loss to Southwest and then trailing by four late in the nightcap, the Lions showed some resolve by battling back in their season finale. They cut their nightcap deficit in half by plating two runs in the bottom of the fifth after reaching SMCC starting pitcher Braden Smith. A sacrifice fly by Emil Ellis and a run-scoring single by reserve first baseman Zach Cox made it a 5-3 contest.
With EMCC sophomore right-hander Layton Dill switching gears from his typical starting role to throwing two scoreless innings in relief, the Lions continued their comeback in the sixth inning. They opened the frame with Austin Lowther's lead-off single followed by Ben Smith reaching base via a hit-batsman. Following Colton McKeithen's sacrifice bunt, Taylor Stafford lined Brady Wilson's pitch into the visitors' right-field bullpen for a three-run homer to complete the comeback. The blast was Stafford's team-leading 10th homer of the year and capped a 3-for-4 effort that included three runs scored to go along with the three RBIs for the former New Hope High School standout.
As the fifth Lion pitcher of the nightcap, Dill picked up his second victory of the year by striking out three and allowing just a sixth-inning single over the final two innings.
The marathon opening game featured 29 total runs scored on a combined 38 hits with 22 runners left on base between the two teams. The offensive battle began with 10 of those runs being scored in the opening frame alone. Southwest's three-run first was answered by seven Lion runs in the bottom half of the inning off SMCC starting pitcher Jacob Buchanan. With EMCC's first six batters reaching base safely, the opening inning featured two-run hits by Whitt Davis and Marcus Ragan.
The Lions proceeded to add to their lead by scoring solo tallies in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings. However, their six-run lead dissipated in the middle of the scheduled nine-inning opener when Southwest scored six runs on six hits off EMCC starting pitcher Chance Riley and reliever Antoine Watts in the top of the fifth.
After EMCC reclaimed the lead at 12-10 with another solo run in the bottom of the seventh, the Bears again tied the game in their next at-bat with a pair of runs on Tanner Whittington's two-out, pinch-hit single off Whitt Davis. Following a scoreless ninth, the opener went to extra innings.
The two teams kept things interesting by remaining deadlocked with two runs apiece in the 10th inning. Jesse Pittman's safety squeeze and an RBI single by Dylan Spiers were answered in the home half by Davis' towering two-run homer off SMCC reliever Kaleb Clarke, who moved from behind the plate as the team's starting catcher to the mound for the final two frames.
On the heels of keeping the home team in the game with his fourth homer of the year the previous inning, EMCC's Davis returned to the hill for his fourth inning of relief work in the top of the 11th and was the victim of the Lions' fourth error of the game. Following Darian Tunstall's fourth hit of the game, he was bunted to second by Jarvis Warner before reaching third on a wild pitch and ultimately scoring the eventual winning run on Walt Aldridge's grounder that was misplayed at first base.
Ragan, from Warren Central High School, paced EMCC's 18-hit team effort in the opener with a 4-for-6 outing at the plate that included three runs scored, two RBIs and three stolen bases for the Lions' lead-off batter. Jo McNabb, Ellis and Davis, who drove home four runs, each added three hits apiece for the home team during the first contest.