KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Even the best magic acts eventually come to an end.
Such was the case on Thursday for the University of Rio Grande’s run through the baseball post-season.
Second-seeded St. Thomas (Fla.) coughed up a pair of leads before pushing across three runs in the eighth inning and holding off the RedStorm, 9-6, in the loser’s bracket final of the NAIA National Championship Opening Round’s Kingsport Bracket at Hunter Wright Stadium.
The Bobcats, who are ranked 22nd nationally, improved to 37-21 with the win and advanced to the championship first final against top-seeded and fifth-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan.
St. Thomas defeated the Bulldogs, 4-1, forcing a winner-take-all second final on Friday at 9 a.m. EDT.
Rio Grande, the No. 5 seed in the bracket, finished at 39-25 with the loss.
The RedStorm, who posted a pair of ninth inning rallies to defeat Indiana Tech earlier in the tournament, erased deficits of 4-1 and 6-5 on Thursday, but could not mount a comeback after the Bobcats regained the advantage in the top of the eighth.
St. Thomas took a 2-0 lead in the first against Rio sophomore starter Collin Powers (Janesville, WI) thanks to RBI singles by Oscar Aguirre and Kendrick Gutierrez, but the RedStorm got one of the runs back when senior Lance Montano (New York, NY) hit into a bases-loaded double-play.
The Bobcats struck twice more in the second, turning two hits – including an RBI single by Jose Gomez – and a pair of Rio errors into a 4-1 lead.
That’s how things stayed until the home half of the fourth, when the RedStorm sent eight batters to the plate and score four times against St. Thomas starter Ben Ancheff to take a 5-4 lead.
Senior Kirk Yates (Chillicothe, OH) and Montano drew consecutive walks and senior Chris Ford (Athens, OH) singled up the middle to load the bases. Junior Carlos Flores (Guayanilla, Puerto Rico) and freshman Dylan Shockley (Minford, OH) had back-to-back RBI singles, sophomore Cody Blackburn (Amanda, OH) plated the tying run on a groundout and junior Judah Wollenburg (Newark, OH) brought home the go-ahead marker with a sacrifice fly to center.
The lead didn’t last long, though, as the Bobcats scored twice in the fifth – once on a wild pitch by Powers and the other on a single by Adam Duarte – to regain a 6-5 advantage.
Rio Grande rebounded again in the bottom of the sixth when Blackburn reached on a one-out single to right, Wollenburg was hit by a pitch and, one out later, junior Daryin Lewis (Circleville, OH) blooped a double to right to bring home the tying run.
Neither team threatened in the seventh, but the Bobcats mounted what proved to be the game-winning rally against Rio junior reliever Trent Downs (Chillicothe, OH) in the eighth.
Michael Centeno led off with a double down the left field line, was bunted over to third and scored on a double to deep right-center by Cesar Ramirez. One out later, Aguirre was intentionally walked before Oscar Rodriguez drove both runners home with the third double of the inning to make it 9-6.
Rio Grande stranded runners at first and second against STU reliever Tyeler Checkley in the eighth and got a two-out single by Ford in the ninth, but Flores bounced into a game-ending forceout at shortstop to close things out.
Ford, Shockley and Blackburn all had two hits for Rio Grande, while Downs suffered his sixth loss in 14 decisions.
Centeno went 4-for-5 with a pair of doubles to lead the Bobcats, while Ramirez, Aguirre and Duarte all had two hits apiece in the winning effort.
Checkley allowed three hits and struck out three over 3-2/3 scoreless innings for his third win in four decisions.
Thursday’s loss marked the final appearance in a Rio uniform for Yates, Montano, Ford, Tyler Noel (Portsmouth, OH) and Anthony Yanez (Perris, CA).
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.