WICHITA, Kansas — With their backs against the wall facing elimination, the Cloud County Community College baseball team came out swinging, literally and figuratively, Thursday morning in its Region VI/Central District Playoff matchup with Butler Community College.
Behind a banner day at the plate for sophomore first baseman Kade Wallace, and another lights out performance from sophomore left-hander Jackson Dietel, the T-Birds steamrolled the Grizzlies by a 15-1 final in six innings to stave off elimination and guarantee themselves at least one more day of baseball.
Cloud County (34-23 overall) will now play at 1 p.m. Friday at Eck Stadium against the loser of tonight's matchup between Hutchinson and Colby.
"It feels good that we get to keep playing. Now, we've gained some confidence to try and make a run on the back side (of the bracket)," said Cloud County head coach, Eric Gilliland. "I've said we're built for this tournament if we could get some confidence. We have a lot of pitching left and I'm just really proud of our effort (Thursday)."
The T-Birds jumped in front with a five-run third inning, scoring the first run of the game on a RBI single from sophomore Grant Schmidt that set the stage for Wallace.
With one gone and the bases full of Thunderbirds, Wallace pounced on a 3-1 fastball from Butler starting pitcher Zach Bravo and deposited it over the wall in left-center for his first career grand slam.
"Big swing by Kade. He's a guy who always gives us a solid at-bat. This time it just happened to leave the yard," Gilliland said. "He ambushed a fastball, got it up in the air. The gaps are pretty deep here, but the wind was blowing out a little bit and he put a good swing on it to backspin it out of here."
It was the second home run of the season for Wallace, who added a RBI single later in the ballgame to finish 2-for-4 with two runs scored and a career-high five RBI.
Cloud County backed up the five-run third inning with three more runs in the fourth, courtesy of a RBI single from freshman Connor Laux and a two-run shot to center by Dietel that made it an 8-0 lead and chased Bravo after 3.2 innings pitched.
"We really made an effort to grind out at-bats early in the game, minimize strikeouts, put pitches on him and make him uncomfortable," Gilliland said of Bravo, who held Cloud County to one earned while striking out 10 in seven innings when the T-Birds saw him back on April 4. "I thought our guys did a great job building off that approach."
The T-Birds' offense had one more big inning left in them in the sixth as they exploded for seven runs against a pair of Butler relievers.
Laux, who was 2-for-3 with two runs scored and three RBI, smashed a two-run single, freshman Alex Rice drove in two with a double, and freshman third baseman Davis Pratt capped the scoring with a two-run triple.
As a team, Cloud County finished with 15 runs on 12 hits, with five different players recording at least two hits less than 24 hours after being shut out in Wednesday's second-round loss to Cowley College.
"Timely hitting, man. It's contagious," Gilliland said. "Yesterday we didn't have it going, today we did."
On the mound, Dietel turned in another gem in his role as the T-Birds' ace. He needed just 64 pitches, 45 of them for strikes, to toss five innings of one-run baseball.
The southpaw picked up his team-leading eighth win of the season, limiting the Grizzlies to one run on four hits while striking out two.
"Dietel continues to be just a big-time competitor," Dietel said. "You put his back against the wall, he's going to come through and that's why we've put him in this role time after time. It was also big to get him out of there early without too many pitches in case we can use him later on."
Sophomore right-hander Jacob Dauer put the bow on the victory with a 1-2-3 sixth inning that included a strikeout.
Cloud County will now refocus on another win-or-go-home game against either Colby or Hutchinson at 1 p.m. Friday at Eck Stadium in Wichita.
"Each of those teams can really swing it and they are teams we've seen a lot, watched a lot and have a good feel for," Gilliland said. "But we're going to have to pitch well. Now is the time it gets interesting in this tournament when the pitching starts to run out."