By ALAN HOSKINS, Sports Information Director
KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- Kansas City Kansas Community College is one win away from its first trip to the NJCAA World Series since 1976.
The only unbeaten team left in the double elimination super-regional after a 7-1 win over Cowley County in a game that ended at 2:26 a.m. Monday morning, the Blue Devils (39-20) are in the championship game Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Wichita’s Lawrence Dumont Stadium. A win would send KCKCC to the World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., May 23-31. If a second game is needed, it would start at 8 p.m.
The Blue Devils’ opponent will be decided today when Garden City (38-22) and Johnson County (46-12) square off at 4 p.m. with the winner facing Cowley (38-16) at 7 p.m. for the right to advance to the championship game against KCKCC Tuesday. KCKCC has defeated all three teams in the super-regional, nipping No. 1 seeded JCCC 3-2 in the opener and Garden City 12-8 in the second round.
With a day off, the Blue Devils will have pitching ace Geoffrey Birkemeier (8-4) ready to go with three days rest and southpaw Hunter Phillips (9-6) with two days rest. The game will be streamed on the Jayhawk Conference website live stats at www.kjccc.org.
A gutty pitching performance by sophomore E.J. Merlo carried the Blue Devils to their third straight win in the double elimination tournament. A righthander from Blue Springs, Merlo (6-3) gave up just one run in scattering seven hits, striking out seven and walking four over seven innings while sitting out two lengthy delays, one for rain and one for a Cowley protest.
“He really battled the whole way,” said KCKCC Coach Steve Burleson. “Considering the delays because of the weather and the protest and a high pitch count (154), he really battled. He’s a former wrestler with a wrestler’s mentality of wanting to do his part and he did. He bent but never broke and struck out their cleanup hitter with his last pitch in the seventh.”
The protest came in the fifth inning after KCKCC had already scored one run on a force-out at second on Christian Arnold’s slow ground ball after the Blue Devils had loaded the bases on a Luke Norton single, a throwing error on Tanner Thoibdeau’s sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk to Garrett McKinzie.
On a hit and run, Daniel LaMunyon flied to rightfield and the throw back to first doubled up Arnold – but not before Thibodeau had tagged and scored from third base.
That brought out a 30-minute protest from Cowley that the run should not have counted.
“The rule speaks clearly,” said Burleson. “It’s something I learned about in about 1985 while umpiring a game and I made the incorrect call.”
An effective use of the bunt figured in KCKCC building a 5-0 lead through the first five innings. Norton led off the game with a walk, took second on a Thibodeau bunt and scored on a McKinzie double to right for a 1-0 lead and the Blue Devils added two more in the fourth. After a double by LaMunyon and single by Tyler Raymond, Alex Thrower’s squeeze bunt scored LaMunyon and Raymond scored on a suicide squeeze bunt by Foerschler. The Blue Devils made it 7-0 in the seventh on LaMunyon’s two-run double following a walk and Arnold’s second single of the game.
Cowley finally broke through against Merlo with a run in the seventh on a double, walk and infield grounder before Merlo ended the inning with his seventh strikeout. Derek Watkins worked the final two innings but not without a little excitement. After loading the bases on two singles and a walk with none out, Watkins left them loaded with two popups and a ground ball and then set the Tigers down in order in the ninth – at 2:26 a.m.