SUMMIT – With a Saturday doubleheader split at Southwest Mississippi, the Lions of East Mississippi Community College secured a spot as the No. 8 seed in this week's MACJC best-of-three baseball playoff series. Winning 12-6 in the opener and falling 10-4 in the nightcap against SMCC to close out the regular season, EMCC (25-17, 15-13) will travel to third-seeded Hinds for a Thursday-Friday playoff series.
First pitch for Thursday's EMCC-Hinds series opener is set for 6:30 p.m. at Joe G. Moss Field in Raymond. Friday's action is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. with a third and deciding game to follow, if necessary. The playoff series will be live-streamed at www.hindsccsports.net/Channel_1.
With MACJC regular-season state champion Jones County receiving a bye into the May 17-21 NJCAA Region 23 Baseball Tournament, the other MACJC best-of-three baseball playoff pairings are No. 2 seed Northwest Mississippi hosting ninth-seeded Copiah-Lincoln, seventh-seeded Mississippi Delta traveling to No. 4 seed East Central, and No. 5 seed Itawamba hosting sixth-seeded Pearl River.
In Saturday's nine-inning opening game at Southwest, the home-standing Bears reached EMCC starting pitcher Vijay Miller for a three-run second inning, including a two-run homer by Ray Hutchinson. After the Lions tallied two runs in the third off SMCC starter Kyle Coleman, Southwest answered with three unearned runs in the bottom half to take a 6-2 lead.
The visitors promptly responded the next frame with three runs on Ja'Coby Cole's run-scoring triple followed by Mike Farnell's third hit of the day to trim the deficit to 6-5 heading to the middle innings.
That's when East Mississippi's bullpen began to take command of the contest. Freshman left-hander Luke Templeton allowed only two hits while pitching shutout baseball during the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. The Starkville Academy product struck out four and walked two over four-plus innings to improve to 2-0 on the year. As EMCC's bats began to warm up late in the contest, freshman reliever Garrett Ainsworth, out of Lewisburg High School, allowed just two hits over the final three innings of the game to register his third save of the year.
After EMCC knotted the game at 6-6 in the sixth on Farnell's sacrifice fly, the Lions put away the opener with back-to-back, three-run innings in the seventh and eighth. Run-producing singles by Alex Knight and Wesley Leamon in the seventh were followed a frame later by Austin Lowther's two-run homer – his fifth of the year – off Bear left-hander Cody Miller.
Farnell paced the Lions' 15-hit team effort in the opening game by going 3-for-4 at the plate with three runs batted in. Lowther added a second-inning double for his two-hit outing, while Cole and Whitt Davis also had two hits apiece.
The seven-inning nightcap was closely contested during the early stages. Southwest's two runs in the bottom of the first on Scooter Ginn's home run were countered by EMCC's solo tallies in the first and second frames. After leading off the game with his eighth triple of the year to rank second nationally among the NJCAA Division II statistical leaders, Marcus Ragan subsequently scored on a wild pitch. Will Garriga then singled home Armani Lewis an inning later to even the score at 2-all.
However, the Lions' regular-season finale quickly turned one-sided in the bottom half of the third. After an inning-opening infield error and a walk, EMCC starting pitcher Walker Kelly surrendered back-to-back-to-back home runs to T Tez Cole, Austin Moen and Hutchinson en route to an eight-run inning for the Bears.
The visitors managed to cut the deficit to 10-4 with a pair of runs in the fourth, but the Southwest pitching trio of starter Tyler Pigott along with relievers Bryson McRaney and Josh Merchant limited the Lions to just one hit over the final three innings to secure the doubleheader split.
Getting his fourth start of the year for EMCC, Garriga, from East Central High School, went 3-for-3 in the nightcap with a fifth-inning double and a pair of singles.