CONWAY, AR - The University of Central Arkansas Bears are back in the Southland Conference Baseball championship game for the second straight year after downing McNeese State 8-6 in winner’s bracket play on Friday night before a stadium-record crowd of 873 at Bear Stadium.
The Bears (32-21) will defend their 2013 tournament championship against Southeastern Louisiana at 1 p.m. Saturday in a battle of undefeated teams at Bear Stadium. SLU beat Northwestern State 7-3 earlier Friday to earn its spot in the championship game. The Lions are making their third consecutive appearance in the title game. The Bears beat the Lions 4-0 in last year’s title game at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas, to earn their first SLC championship.
The 3-0 Bears, who won their eighth straight SLC tournament game dating back to last year’s championship run, got four strong innings of relief work from junior Connor McClain to hold off the Cowboys (30-28), who eliminated Texas A&M-Corpus Christi earlier Friday. McClain, from Conway, struck out seven and allowed three hits in holding the Cowboys to a single run down the stretch.
“He did great,’ said UCA head coach Allen Gum. “We needed that. (McNeese) was swinging the bat really well. I did not know if we were going to be able to shut them down. I thought we were going to go out there and keep scoring and outscore them, and then Connor just came in and threw outstanding.
“He had a good fastball tonight with good life on it. His breaking ball was his strikeout pitch tonight. We needed him big, and he game in clutch for us.’
The Bears fell behind 3-0 in the first inning as the Cowboys scored three times on four hits, a walk and a hit by pitch. But the Bears, who upped their season-high winning streak to nine games, came right back with five runs in the top of the second inning.
Justin Treece walked, Charles Deckard was hit by a pitch and Carson Dowdle loaded the bases with another walk off McNeese starter Michael Clemens (4-4), who lasted only 1 2/3 innings, allowing five earned runs, walking two and hitting two batters. Doug Votolato’s fielder’s choice scored the first run. After he stole second base, Wesley Hoover’s base hit scored two more.
Chris Townsend, who reached base in all five at-bats, was hit by pitch before Nate Ferrell added a two-run single to make it 5-3.
UCA pushed its lead to 7-3 in the fourth when Tyler Langley’s RBI single scored Townsend and Scott Zimmerle added an RBI double, scoring Nate Ferrell. The Cowboys, who came in as the seventh seed, got two runs back in the fifth off UCA reliever Josh Markel before McClain came in and shut them out for three innings. He retired the first eight batters he faced, four with strikeouts.
The Bears got a single run in the sixth on Zimmerle’s sacrifice fly. The Cowboys pieced together a mild rally in the ninth as James Cantu led off with a double, moved up on a passed ball and scored on Connor Lloyd’s RBI single. McClain then got Matt Williams to pop up to Carson Dowdle in left field for the final out to end the game.
Ferrell, a junior from Griffin, Ga., went 3 for 4 with 2 RBI and 2 runs scored, while Townsend was 2 for 2 with a walk and two hit by pitch. Zimmerle went 2 for 3 with 2 RBI. Andrew Guillotte went 3 for 5 for the Cowboys, and Lloyd and Williams had 2 hits apiece.
“Our guys did a good job battling. We got a break on the one ball that was a balk, and we got to come back and get a hit on that. Our guys had some good at bats, and with baseball, our guys got some timely hits. We got a break there and scored. Especially after they scored three, to come back and score five was really big.’
SLU has lost in the past two championship games and is 14-16 overall in nine appearances in the SLC Tournament. UCA upped its tournament record to 8-3 over the past three seasons.