TERRE HAUTE —
Alcorn State’s baseball team might be ranked in the bottom 10 in RPI and Indiana State might have never lost to a Southwestern Athletic Conference team. So it wouldn’t appear that a quality win was in the offing when Alcorn State visited Bob Warn Field on Friday.
But quality wins are about timing as much as they are about the opponent, or even, the manner of victory.
Alcorn had ISU on the ropes with a three-run lead entering the bottom of the ninth inning, but the Sycamores pulled a four-run rabbit out of their hat and rallied for a dramatic 5-4 victory to start the three-game nonconference series on a winning note.
ISU (19-22) won its first game over a Division I opponent since April 14. Just as important, the Sycamores were able to shake off the demons that had cast a pall over the team for the last few weeks.
“Individually for myself and for a lot of guys, it’s been frustrating and almost depressing. We couldn’t find any answers,” said ISU shortstop Tyler Wampler, who drove in the tying run in the ninth. “This whole season has been frustrating as a group. We’ve had games where we definitely should have won or games where we fought back and fell short. To get a win like that, it’s huge. Hopefully we keep the momentum going.”
Those demons scratched at ISU’s door for most of the contest against a game Braves team that played better than their RPI (289th out of 298 teams) indicated.
ISU committed four errors — all but one of them led directly or indirectly to Alcorn runs — and the Sycamores struggled at the plate again.
“It’s a little disappointing to put ourselves in that situation. Alcorn played very well. We uncharacteristically made four errors and kicked it around on a Friday night. We can’t play that way,” ISU coach Rick Heller said. “After the game, we said we needed something like this. We haven’t had one like this this year.”
ISU starting pitcher Sean Manaea continued to gain strength and confidence on the mound. The MLB prospect struck out 11, a season-high, and had allowed only one hit — a bunt single to break up his no-hit bid in the fourth — through his first six innings.
ISU took a 1-0 lead in the sixth. Wampler led off with a walk and scored on a Robby Ort single. It appeared that Manaea was set up for a victory.
It didn’t turn out that way. Alcorn’s Angel Polo tagged a solo home run to left field to start the seventh inning to tie the game. The Braves took a 2-1 lead with a two-out rally as Ashton Lewis doubled and later scored on a Koby Kraemer throwing error.
It got worse for ISU in the Alcorn eighth. The Braves drew a pair of walks off reliever Tyler Browning to start the frame. On a potential double play grounder with one out and runners at the corners, Derek Hannahs’s throw to first was off-the-mark and Alvin Jackson’s run counted to make it 3-1. A RBI single by Josh Powell made it 4-1 before the inning ended.
ISU had the bases loaded with one out in its half of the eighth, but a 4-6-3 double play by Ort stopped ISU in its tracks.
A pensive ninth inning for ISU began with Kraemer drawing a walk, a single by Jacob Hayes and Mike Fitzgerald being hit by a pitch.
But Murphy’s Law still seemed to be the rule for ISU when Casey McCurdy hit into a grounder to first. Alcorn threw home, but the throw was off-line. Still, Kraemer was called out by force-out. Replay showed that Kraemer had beaten the tag to either himself or the plate.
“The call doesn’t go your way, and a lot of times, guys give up. But we didn’t,” Heller said.
From that point, fate smiled on the Sycamores. Connor McClain slapped a two-run single that closed the gap to 4-3.
“It felt really good. We needed something to get it going. We’ve struggled to score runs. Hopefully, it can catapult us. Hitting is contagious,” McClain said.
Wampler was next. With McCurdy on second, the West Terre Haute native hit an opposite field single to right. McCurdy hustled home and just barely beat an excellent throw by Alcorn right fielder Powell to tie the game.
Landon Curry then hit a deep fly ball to center with plenty of distance to score McClain from third for a game-winning sacrifice fly.
Time will tell whether ISU’s rally will be the catalyst to loosen the team up for the remainder of the season.
“I hope so. It was good to see us not give up and go out fighting. As bad as things have been going, to fight back like that was impressive to me,” Heller said.
ISU continues its series with Alcorn (15-37) at 2 p.m. today.