No. 1-seed Pearl River pounces on opportunities in World Series opener

By FROM PRCC,

ENID, Oklahoma — Top-seed Pearl River may have been out-hit in its first NJCAA Division II World Series appearance since 2002 but what really mattered was the runs column on the box score. The Wildcats capitalized on several Pasco-Hernando mistakes and added a number of timely hits to knock off the Bobcats 8-4 on Sunday night at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.

“It wasn’t the prettiest win but it sure was beautiful,” Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. “You’re talking about your first World Series win for this program in a long time. I can’t say I’m surprised by how we played; we didn’t play clean but it has been an emotional week and a half for us coupled with the layoff. That’s not an excuse. We’ll get better.”

With the win, PRCC (41-12 overall) will play host NOC-Enid at 7:15 p.m. Monday. The game will be streamed at NJCAATV.com and broadcast on WRJW 1320 AM and WRJWRadio.com.

GETTING STARTED

Pearl River broke through in the bottom of the second, loading the bases on the Bobcats. Luke Harper (Meridian; Northeast Lauderdale) dropped down a perfect squeeze to the left side to score PRCC’s first run and then Matt Taylor (Raleigh) was hit by a pitch to plate the inning’s second run.

“He’s shown all year he can do that,” Avalon said of the bunt. “It’s part of his game and something he’s gotten really good at.

“I told him it was there if he wanted it and he took advantage in a big situation.”

PHSC looked like it might scratch the scoreboard in the top of the fourth after getting two runners aboard with only one out but after a big strikeout by starter Miles Smith (Laurel; Northeast Jones), Wiley Cleland (Columbia; Columbia Academy) made a diving stop up the middle and flipped the ball to Dexter Jordan (Hattiesburg) just as second baseman crossed the bag for the third out.

Noah Barron (Hoover, Ala.) extended Pearl River’s lead to 3-0 in the fourth with a solo homerun over the brick left field wall.

Barron said it was nearly an identical pitch to one he popped out on earlier in the game.

“I couldn’t miss it twice,” he said. “I haven’t squared a ball up like that in a while.”

Back to back triples by the Bobcats in the fifth brought the score to 3-2. The Wildcats responded by getting those two runs back plus another in the fifth. Jordan drew a walk but the fourth ball zipped past the Bobcat catcher, allowing Taylor to score. Reece Ewing (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy) then struck out but once again the third strike got past the PHSC catcher, allowing Austen Izzio (Carriere; Pearl River Central) to score. A perfectly timed two-out hit the other way by Barron plated Cleland to give PRCC a 6-2 lead.

The Bobcats got a run back in the sixth with potential for more but Reid Reynolds (Heidelberg; Northeast Jones) entered in relief of Smith and induced a grounder to Cleland to end the threat.

Pearl River pounced on a couple Bobcat blunders in the sixth to extend its lead to 8-3. After PHSC balked in a run, the Wildcats scored their second run of the frame when the Bobcats let yet another strikeout pitch roll all the way to the backstop.

“That was the result of the pressure that we applied as an offense,” Avalon said. “If you look at our offense from all year, yeah the home runs are pretty but the thing I see as a coach that makes us a special offense is our freebies — walks and hit-by-pitches versus our strikeouts.”

The Bobcats plated a run in the seventh but it could have been much worse for PRCC if not for another masterful play by Cleland and Jordan. With the bases loaded, two outs and a 2-0 count on the Bobcat batter, Avalon opted to turn to Evan Bynum (Soso; West Jones). The freshman right-hander induced a hard-hit ball up the middle that would have been trouble except Cleland once again dove to knock down the ball and then flipped it to Jordan just in time for the third out.

“Wiley Cleland was phenomenal defensively,” Avalon said of the sophomore, who finished with six assists and a putout. “Some people say he’s not the most prototypical shortstop but he’s our shortstop and I’m glad he is. I’d live and die by him any day of the week.”

The Bobcats had several more chances to get into the game, working two walks and a single over the final two frames but Bynum slammed the door both times with emphatic strikeouts.

“That last strikeout felt better than any strikeout I’ve ever had I do believe,” Bynum said of the win-securing strikeout. “It felt amazing knowing my team won the first game of the World Series.”

PITCHING

Smith turned in a strong showing in the Wildcat’s World Series opener, allowing three runs on six hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings while striking out seven. The win was Smith’s ninth on the season and third straight in as many starts.

“He really toed the rubber and did what he always does,” Avalon said.

Although Reynolds didn’t have his best performance, Bynum picked up his teammate by pitching 2 1/3 scoreless innings to earn his second save of the season.

OFFENSE

Barron was the only Wildcat with two hits. As a team, however, Pearl River walked 11 times for the third time this season, eclipsed only by a 12-walk performance against Baton Rouge on Feb. 17. Kasey Donaldson (Gulfport; West Harrison) walked a team-high three times. Taylor, Cleland, Shemar Page (Raleigh) and Jordan each walked twice.

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