MOUNT CARMEL -- When presented with a challenge, Wabash Valley College's hitters have come through time and time again. Not much changed in that regard for the Warriors in the Region 24 Tournament opener against Frontier Community College on Friday.
The Warrior bats came through once again, plating 11 runs after two scoreless early innings in Wabash Valley's 11-2 victory in the tournament opener hosted at Wabash Valley College.
Give the Bobcats' starter credit, he kept the top offense in the country at bay in their first turn through the lineup. But with Wabash Valley, you knew it was just a matter of time until their bats came alive.
"Something we pride ourselves on is the first 20 pitches," Wabash Valley College head baseball coach Rob Fournier said. "Really communicating and getting a good gameplan together after the first 20, umpire's strike zone, what his out pitch is, understanding that, getting a good gameplan after the first 20 pitches and executing from there. We did a phenomenal job of that and really happy with how we stayed disciplined."
Meanwhile, Frontier (27-29) scored first, taking a 1-0 lead in the second inning before Warriors sophomore starter Ryan O'Connell fanned three batters to get of a no out, runner on second jam with ease.
The third inning began with the bottom of the Wabash Valley order, freshman third baseman Freylin Minyety hit a single, followed by sophomore center fielder Noah Myers reaching on an error and sophomore second baseman Brian Fuentes getting hit by a pitch. The pitch which struck Fuentes is one Frontier surely wishes they could get back, as it set a bases loaded, one out opportunity for sophomore Cael Baker, who leads JUCO in virtually every hitting category and ended the season with the Triple Crown. Baker came through with a 1-0 count, slashing a two RBI double down the left field line and putting the Warriors ahead 2-1. Sophomore DH Miguel Rivera would continue the inning with a sacrifice fly to put Wabash Valley ahead 3-1 as the inning drew to an end.
The Bobcats drew closer in the fourth inning, plating home one run to reduce the deficit to 3-2. O'Connell got out of another jam, fanning a batter and forcing the final batter to line out to strand two Frontier baserunners in the inning.
Upon the conclusion of the fifth inning though, the game was all but over. The Warriors exploded for seven runs in the bottom half of the inning, including a two-run homer to left field off Baker's bat, a two RBI double by freshman left fielder Kirk Liebert, a two RBI high chopper single over the third baseman's head for Minyety and a sacrifice fly by Myers. Their strong contributions suddenly inflated what was once a one-run game to eight runs, a 10-2 WVC lead.
Liebert tacked on an insurance run in the sixth inning for the Warriors to bring the lead to 11-2, but the game was all but over regardless.
It was a good debut in the tournament for the Warriors, who briefly faced a challenge. It should serve as a good preparation style game for the challenges which will lie ahead in postseason play.
O'Connell (10-1) ended with a complete game, allowing five hits, two runs and fanning eight batters through his seven frames of work. He was locating his pitches well, particularly his breaking balls aside from his couple jams.
"That's exactly what we need out of him," Fournier spoke of O'Connell. "You have to have a starter go seven and give you a quality start, that's exactly what he did. Great start for the tournament."
Baker and Liebert combined for seven of the Warrior RBIs in the game, including Baker's two-run homer. Baker's lethal bat has troubled opposing pitchers all season and it wouldn't be shocking if teams elected to avoid pitching to the first baseman in postseason play. Collectively though, when the Warrior bats heated up, they put the ball in play and played well. Fournier said their situational hitting stuck out. They were able to lay down bunts and hit the ball in gaps.
"The biggest thing for us today is we situational hit, got the bunt down when we need to and obviously Cael did a phenomenal job of picking us up and hitting some mistakes," Fournier said. "I'm very proud of the guys, any time you win in the tournament -- I feel like Frontier's a good team, very well coached and I was happy with how they came out confident, but also understanding confident has to be relaxed."
Wabash Valley (50-1) extends their win streak to 48 games with the victory and will face Kaskaskia in a resumed game at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Wabash Valley College. The two teams managed to reach the top of the sixth inning on Saturday before being postponed due to rain. They'll resume with the score tied at 2-2 with one out in the inning. The loser of Sunday's game will face Olney Central at 3 p.m.
FCC -- 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 -- 2
WVC -- 0 0 3 0 7 1 X -- 11
Wabash Valley notable hitting: Baker 2-for-4, 2B, HR, 4 RBIs. Liebert 2-for-4 2B, 3 RBIs. Minyety 3-for-4, 2 RBIs. Myers 0-for-3, RBI. Rivera 1-for-3, RBI.
Warriors pitching: O'Connell (10-1) 7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 8 K.