SCOOBA – Featuring an MACJC season-opening baseball matchup between two nationally ranked teams, the 14th-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College dropped a pair of hard-fought decisions, 8-5 and 3-1, to top-ranked Jones County Junior College Saturday afternoon at Gerald Poole Field.
In the scheduled nine-inning opener, the Bobcats took an early 1-0 lead in the first frame after lead-off batter Fred Franklin laced a double to right field before moving to third on a passed ball and scoring on Shelton Wallace's infield out.
Two innings later, the Lions reached JCJC starting pitcher Mason Strickland for five runs on back-to-back home runs by sophomores Whitt Davis and Mike Farnell. A one-out walk to De'Andre Pitts preceded consecutive singles by Destin Payton and Marcus Ragan to set the table for the big inning. Davis launched a towering grand slam over the left-field wall for his team-leading third home run of the year and seventh of his EMCC career. Farnell promptly followed with a blast to center field for his first homer of the year and fourth of his career to give the home team a 5-1 lead.
The reigning NJCAA Division II national champions didn't waste any time getting right back in the contest during their next at-bat off EMCC starting pitcher Alex Knight. Luther Woullard's lead-off triple in the fourth was followed by a walk to Tristan Labove, a run-scoring single by Caleb Ledet and Franklin's game-tying, three-run homer to left field.
JCJC's Strickland, who improved to 6-0 on the year, settled down on the mound after that and held the Lions scoreless over the next three innings on just two hits before giving way to the bullpen.
On offense, the Bobcats reclaimed the lead by scoring an unearned run in the sixth before adding a pair of insurance runs off EMCC relievers Garrett Ainsworth and Bubba Stockstill in the eighth. After giving up an RBI double to Wallace and issuing a bases-loaded walk to Tanner Huddleston in the eighth, Stockstill went on to strike out the side to keep the Lions within reach.
Jones County's bullpen proved very effective during both contests. In the opener, Kyle Shepherd threw two scoreless innings of middle relief prior to closer Will Freeman nailing down the contest with a perfect ninth. Following EMCC's five-run third inning, the Bobcats subsequently allowed just three hits over the final six shutout innings.
In what would initially showcase a classic pitching duel between EMCC two-sport standout Vijay Miller and JCJC sophomore left-hander Logan Robbins, the scheduled seven-inning nightcap would need a couple of extra frames to decide a winner.
This time the Lions got on the scoreboard first on Ragan's second home run of the year to lead off the bottom of the first. But, that's as much offense EMCC would produce the remainder of the contest, as JCJC's Robbins and Ben Stiglets combined to strike out 14 batters.
Making his third start of the year on the mound for the Lions, Miller was just as impressive during his eight-strikeout, seven-inning pitching stint. After allowing just two hits – a pair of singles to JCJC's Franklin – over the first four innings, Miller ran into some fifth-inning difficulty. Successive one-out singles by Tate Pepper, Ledet and Franklin loaded the bases for the Bobcats. Wallace's sacrifice fly to right field tied the game at 1-1, but Miller would go on to retire the last eight batters he faced before handing the ball to EMCC closer Eli Leathers to begin the eighth.
Leathers was able to pitch out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the initial extra frame by striking out Jonathan Parker and Woullard to thwart the JCJC rally. However, the Kosciusko product ran into some two-out difficulties in the ninth beginning with a fluke play. Following two ground-ball outs for the visitors to start the inning, Ledet grounded a would-be infield hit up the middle. While Ledet stumbled to the ground on his way to first, EMCC second baseman Tucker Calhoun couldn't make a play on the ball in time to get the runner. Following a passed ball, an intentional walk to Franklin and a balk by Leathers to advance both runners into scoring position, Wallace came through in the clutch for the Bobcats to deliver a two-run single to center field.
Meanwhile on the hill for Jones County, Stiglets faced the minimum nine batters during his three-inning relief effort that was capped by a game-ending double play in which he started on a grounder hit back to the mound. Stiglets raised his record to 5-0 on the year, while the Bobcats remained undefeated at 20-0 for the season.
Ragan added a third-inning double and a fifth-inning single in the nightcap to account for three of the Lions' five hits. The Warren Central High School product also had a single and a run scored in the opener.
Coach Chris Rose's 9-5 EMCC Lions continue their current baseball home stand during the coming week by playing host to the Rangers of Northwest Mississippi Community College in a 4 p.m. Wednesday doubleheader at Gerald Poole Field on the Scooba campus.