OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Tensions in each dugout were palpable. The drama built with every half-inning like beads of sweat from the 85-degree heat and clear skies over the ballpark at Johnson County Community College.
Sunday's Game Three between the Cloud County Community College baseball team and Johnson County had all the ingredients fans could ask for in a win-or-go-home playoff game. All except the desired ending for the T-Birds' faithful as Cloud County fell 17-12 in the rollercoaster finale, and 2-1 in the Region VI playoff series against the Cavaliers.
"All I asked our guys to do was enter the fight (Sunday) and see if we could out-fight Johnson County," said Cloud County head coach, Eric Gilliland. "We fought and battled. That was one of the wildest games I've ever been a part of with the comebacks and lead changes. It just didn't go our way."
Cloud County (27-26 overall), after taking an early 2-0 lead on a RBI groundout from sophomore Ryan Krolikowski and RBI single from redshirt freshman Aidan Huggins, found itself staring at an 8-3 hole through the game's first five innings.
Johnson County (36-21 overall) scored five unearned runs in the bottom of the first, taking advantage of three errors in the innings and some early jitters for the usually sure-handed T-Birds, who entered the day fourth in the KJCCC in fielding percentage at .955.
"We've been pretty good at fielding the baseball this year, been one of the top fielding teams in the conference, but just made some physical errors (Sunday)," Gilliland said. "Unfortunately, it happens. I can't fault the guys for a lack of effort or lack of caring."
Cloud County came roaring back in the middle innings, tying the score at 8-8 in the top of the sixth with a five-spot.
Freshman outfielder Ed Scott, who was 2-for-4 on the day, got the rally started with a one-out double down the right-field line. He'd score one batter later on a single by Cloud County's all-time hits leader, sophomore Matt Bondarchuk (2-for-6, 2 RBI).
That started a streak of seven straight batters to reach safely for the T-Birds, which included a run-scoring doubles from sophomore Erik Sabrowski and Huggins, and the game-tying walk drawn by sophomore catcher Dario DeSantis.
"It was a whole group effort. Almost everyone got in the game (Sunday) and those innings were just a lot of guys putting together quality at-bats," said Gilliland of the T-Birds' comeback.
After Johnson County briefly took the lead back at 10-8 in the home-half of the sixth, the T-Birds answered with two in the seventh on an opposite field, two-run home run by Sabrowski and a pair of runs in the eighth inning to retake a 12-10 lead.
Unfortunately for the T-Birds, the Cavaliers were able to mount a late rally of their own with a seven-run eighth inning to halt the Cloud County momentum and escape with the 17-12 victory.
Sabrowski and fellow Canadian sophomore Tauren Langley each collected three hits on Sunday to headline a strong afternoon from the middle of the T-Birds' lineup.
Langley was 3-for-3 with a RBI and run scored, while Sabrowski went 3-for-5 with 4 RBI and 11th long ball of the season.
He finishes the season with a team-high 58 runs batted in. Sabrowski, who was unable to pitch in the series due to arm fatigue, also ends the year with a 7-2 record, 3.14 earned run average and 117 strikeouts; the third best mark of any NJCAA pitcher and best single-season mark in school history.
"It was a precautionary deal to keep him out with his arm being fatigued," said Gilliland of Sabrowski, who is on the radar of Major League Baseball scouts. "Obviously, we wish we could have had him on the mound for us and things could have possibly turned out different. It was tough timing, but Erik's long-term career is more important."
Gilliland praised the collection of 26 sophomores or second year players on this year's roster that helped lead Cloud County to its first season at .500 or better since 2009 (28-28 overall), and first winning season since 2003 (28-23 overall).
"These guys are the builders. These are the group of guys who, when I took the job in June of 2016, they dove in head first," Gilliland said. "They did anything and everything we asked them to do and that's the only reason we've had success. They believed and they will forever be the founders and builders of our culture."
It's a culture the T-Birds hope has been indoctrinated in a talented group of freshmen returners already itching for another chance at Region VI postseason baseball and the opportunity to go to the Central District Playoffs in Wichita next season.
"There's a whole group of guys who got a taste of it this year and some guys who have already said 'Coach, we're going to Wichita next year,'" Gilliland said. "They're ready and they learned a lot this year. You don't learn in the good times. The bad times make the good times even better. I hope they learn from this and are ready to come back next year so we can figure out a way to get to Wichita."