UCA moves to 2-0 in Southland Tournament

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SUGAR LAND, TX – Two up, two down for the University of Central Arkansas Bears at the 2019 Southland Conference Tournament.

The second-seeded Bears (31-25) got their second complete-game shut out in as many days, this one from sophomore right hander Gavin Stone, to run-rule the sixth-seeded Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks 11-0 in the winner’s bracket on Thursday at Constellation Field. The Bears scored all the runs they would need in their first at-bat of the day, plating three runs on three hits in the top of the first inning. UCA would add a three-run seventh and chalk up five more in the eighth to end the game in eight innings.

UCA senior designated hitter Tanner Wiley posted a career-high five RBI with a three-run double down the left-field line in the first inning and another two-run double down the same line in the seventh. He finished 2 for 4 while junior third baseman Beau Orlando went 3 for 4 with 3 runs scored. Junior catcher Nathaniel Sagdahl also threw out two would-be base stealers for the Lumberjacks (25-32) in the first two innings.

Stone, who has been UCA’s closer for most of the season, was a surprise starter in Game 2 and made the most of his opportunity. He threw an even 100 pitches, a season high, and allowed just six hits, all singles. Stone, with a previous high of 91 pitches early in the season against Missouri State in his only other start of the year, struck out five and issued no walks.

Stone followed up senior Cody Davenport’s complete game in Wednesday’s tournament opener to keep the UCA bullpen at full strength heading into Day 3 of the tournament. 

“It starts with starting pitching and Stone was really, really good,’ said UCA head coach Allen Gum. “We let him know this morning. He had an idea he could go and then today we confirmed it. But he’s pretty stoic, pretty level, so he was ready to go, and it showed today. He had good stuff.’ 

Gum and pitching coach Nick Harlan were not sure they could get another complete game from Stone, who had thrown more than 50 pitches just once since April 6. He leads the Bears with six saves and is now 4-3 overall. 

“That was a concern,’ said Gum. “We were hoping if we could get five or six, we’d take that, because he’s been closing. But he got eight for us and that was awesome.Save the arms. Those (bullpen) guys are going to have to come in sooner or later, but later is better than sooner.’

Stone, a sophomore from Jonesboro who played at Riverside High School, was not sure what to expect either.

“Honestly, I was worried about it,’ said Stone. “I thought I was going to get like maybe six innings. It really surprised me that I went that long.’

The early 3-0 lead certainly helped. 

“It made me relax,’ said Stone. “I was a little nervous because it was only the second game that I started. Getting those runs was huge for me to relax and calm down.’ 

The Bears, who won for the 10th time against SFA in the past 12 meetings, turned 11 hits into 11 runs to advance to a 4 p.m. game on Friday where they will face the winner of SFA-Southeastern Louisiana, which play at 9 a.m. Friday.

“Today, offensively, we just found the (foul) lines,’ said Gum. “I think we found four of them. So we had every break on offense. Balls bouncing through, different things like that. And we made our breaks. We got guys on base and then we just found the lines. And the biggest thing we did was play a high level of catch. A couple of throwdowns at second and our middle picked it and got the tags. (Christian) Brasher with a great play in the six hole.

“And to finish the game, that play right there that Jay (Anderson) made. We pitched it well, we played a high level of catch, we got them on and then we just got the breaks finding the holes. And lot of strikes, Stone did a good job for us.’

In the seventh inning, Anderson walked and Josh Ragan doubled down the left-field line. Orlando was intentionally walked before a wild pitch brought in the first run. That set up Wiley’s second double that made it at 6-0 lead, more than enough for Stone. 

  The Bears then sent nine batters to the plate in the top of the eighth and got an RBI double by Anderson, a run-scoring single by Beau Orlando, a two-run double by senior Tyler Smith and their final run on a passeed ball. 

Wiley, a pitcher for the Bears for all of last season and most of this year, has taken to his new role as designated hitter. He entered the game with six RBI on the season in 11 games at DH, and and nearly doubled that with five on Thursday. He was also possibly in line for long relief against the Lumberjacks if Stone had run out of gas.

“We knew he could hit,’ said Gum. “We needed a left-handed pinch hitter is how it started. And he was hitting so well, working for about a month, and we just hadn’t found the time to put him in. We intrasquaded and we put him in there and he got a couple of hits. So we said, let’s start him and see what happens. 

“And he’s had quality at-bat after quality at-bat. He’s put together some good base hits with runners in scoring position. So that was a good late-season surprise.’

The Bears have a shot at advancing to their fourth SLC championship game since 2013, but need one more win to get there. UCA is the highest seed remaining after No. 1 Sam Houston State went 0-2 and was eliminated earlier Thursday. 

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