CONCORDIA, Kansas — Friday marked the first time in program history that the Cloud County Community College baseball team hosted a first round Region VI/Central District Playoffs game. And the T-Birds wasted little time getting the first win out of the way as they earned a 9-7 victory over Allen County Community College in a pivotal Game One of the best-of-three series.
Cloud County (32-22 overall), the No. 7 overall seed in the playoff bracket, overcame an early 3-1 deficit and survived a ninth inning scare from the No. 10 seeded Red Devils (31-20 overall) in a wild, back-and-forth affair at Lee Doyen Field in Concordia.
"Playoff baseball in general can be crazy and you have to be able to handle the highs and lows," said Cloud County head coach, Eric Gilliland. "There were certainly some of those in this game."
Fans were on the edge of their seats in the ninth as, after the T-Birds opened the inning with a 9-4 lead, Allen County had four straight batters reach with two outs to cut the deficit to 9-7.
With the tying runs in scoring position and the go-ahead run at first, Cloud County freshman reliever Trey Asher was called upon to get the final out.
Asher inherited a 1-0 count on Allen County's Baxter Mays and didn't flinch as the left-hander poured in three straight strikes to punch out Mays, defuse the threat, and earn his first collegiate save.
"He came in and did what he's done all year and that's throw strikes and mix pitches," said Gilliland of Asher, who now sports a 2.56 ERA and just three walks in 21.1 innings pitched this season. "When he does it, he doesn't give guys pitches to hit. I'm really proud of Trey. He's been in situations like that many times, so it wasn't his first time being out there with the game on the line. He's been able to make big pitches for us in that role."
Cloud County was able to build its lead in the middle innings, kick started by a three-run third inning the gave the T-Birds the lead back at 4-3.
Freshman outfielder Alex Rice delivered the big hit as he looped a two-out, two-run single to shallow left field. He'd finish the afternoon 3-for-4 with three singles and the two RBI.
The T-Birds upped their lead to 5-3 in the fifth when sophomore Grant Schmidt hit a towering home run to left field, snapping a 12-game home run drought for the big right-hander out of Hastings, Nebraska.
Schmidt, who was a spotless 3-for-3 with three RBI on Friday, was far from done as he smashed a ground rule double that one-hopped the wall in the sixth. He then launched his second home run of the game in the eighth inning to make it a 9-4 lead for Cloud County.
His eighth-inning blast hooked just inside the foul pole in left, giving Schmidt his team-leading 13th home run and 46th RBI of the season.
"He has a tendency to do that and when he gets going like he did (Friday), he's very fun to have on your team," Gilliland said. "I thought his swing looked tight and good today. He was on time and he kind of put us on his back, offensively."
Schmidt added his third RBI back in the first inning with a sacrifice fly to opening the game's scoring. It was the first of five runs scored by the T-Birds on Friday that came via a productive out.
Freshman outfielder Clayton Loranger and sophomores Jackson Dietel and Kade Wallace all had sacrifice flies in Game One, while redshirt freshman Ramon Vingochea produced a RBI groundout in the seventh.
"Our approach at the plate was great. We drove guys in, we had timely hits and we executed when we had men on base with our bunts and sacrifice flies," Gilliland said. "The plan, offensively, was good. We're going to have to get back after it like that again (Saturday)."
While the Cloud County offense churned out its nine runs on 12 hits, freshman relief pitcher Bradan Pierce did his job in the middle innings to keep the Red Devils in check.
Pierce allowed just one run on one hit in his 3.2 innings. The right-hander was electric, and effectively wild, as he walked three and struck out eight en route to picking up his third win of the season.
The Enid, Oklahoma native now has 13 strikeouts in his last 8.2 innings and leads the team with a mark of 12.90 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
"Bradan battled some command issues, but his stuff was so good that he kept missing bats," Gilliland said. "He did an awesome job and he's a huge reason we won that ballgame."
Cloud County will not turn its attention toward Game Two of the series, scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Lee Doyen Field. If needed, Game Three would follow at approximately 4 p.m.
"It's one pitch at a time. We've been in this situation (a chance to advance to Wichita) in each of the last two years and ended up in a Game Three," Gilliland said. "There's a possibility for a lot of baseball (Saturday) and we have to focus on winning more pitches than they do. We have to play the game the right way, play it clean and throw more strikes than we did (Friday). Hopefully, we'll be able to come away with another victory tomorrow."