After the Bethune-Cookman baseball team sparred with the top-seeded University of Miami in a scoreless pitcher’s duel only to take a knockout blow with a walk-off wild pitch in the ninth inning on Friday, the Wildcats got back up on Saturday afternoon to deliver some blows early in an elimination game.
Bethune-Cookman (27-32), the No. 4 seed in the regional, jumped on third-seeded Columbia right away with a leadoff home run from right fielder Josh Johnson, compiled a six-run lead and held off a late rally to survive 6-5 at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field for the program’s first regional win since 2002.
“It’s a great moment in Bethune-Cookman baseball history to take the first step in eventually — hopefully — winning a regional and moving this program forward,” Wildcats coach Jason Beverlin said.
Cleanup-hitting second baseman Matt Noble went 2 for 3 and drove in three runs for the Wildcats, who advance to another 2 p.m. elimination game on Sunday, facing the loser of Saturday night’s Miami-Texas Tech game. Columbia (29-20) is the first team eliminated in the Coral Gables Regional.
Down 6-4 in the ninth, the Lions got one across with a Gus Craig RBI single, but cleanup hitter Rob Paller, who had an RBI earlier, followed by lining out to center to end it.
Reliever John Sever was instrumental in stopping the bleeding in a four-run seventh inning for Columbia and then holding the Lions to one run over three innings for his fourth save of the season.
“The momentum was definitely on their side and you could see that and for him to squash that and shut them down was huge,” Beverlin said. “He really did a good job of minimizing the damage and getting out of that without things snowballing out of control.”
Johnson’s leadoff home run snuck just inside the left-field foul pole and slightly over the wall for the hitter that’s not known for his power.
“I joked around with a couple of players like, ‘I’m due for one.’ I always say it, though. It’s the funniest thing because I say it before every game and I only have three career home runs,” Johnson said. “It felt amazing. Off the bat I saw it was gone and it felt great.”
It set a relaxed tone for an offense that was shut out against UM starter Andrew Suarez Friday.
“That was the biggest play of the game for us to just let down our guard and play the way we can,” Beverlin said.
Paller and John Kinne both had run-scoring hits for Columbia, Will Savage drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk and Jordan Serena brought one home on a sacrifice fly as the Lions hit around the order in the four-run seventh that got them back in the game.
“We were feeling great about ourselves,” said catcher Mike Fischer, who had a hit, walked twice and scored a run. “We’ve had tons of come-from-behind wins this year. There was never any attitude about giving up.”
Bethune-Cookman starter Keith Zuniga went six-plus innings, allowing three earned runs on seven hits and two walks. He left with a 6-0 lead and ended up with the win, but the three runners he allowed to reach before being taken out in the seventh all ended up scoring.
Columbia starter Kevin Roy gave up four runs — two of them earned — on six hits and two walks over five innings.
Noble put the Wildcats up 6-0 with a two-run double in the top of the seventh and drove in another on an RBI single in the fifth.
Columbia was eliminated, but coach Brett Boretti was still able to view the more positive bigger picture of the team setting a school record of 29 wins this season.
“Best team in history of Columbia,” he said. “We’re down and not feeling good about it right now, but when they get to reflect on the journey that got them here, it’s all positive.”