Russell, Tigers walk off with two wins

The Tigers hadn’t won in walk-off fashion all season. Too bad head coach Rich Grife didn’t get to see it.

Two and a half innings after he was ejected for arguing with the home plate umpire, Grife’s gang finished off a Saturday sweep of Muscatine.

The Marshalltown Community College baseball team took three of four from the visiting Cardinals in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference weekend series, spurning Muscatine’s sixth-inning comeback with a 6-5, eight-inning victory on Ty Russell’s bases-loaded single off the base of the right-field fence for the walk-off win in the nightcap.

The Tigers took a 6-1 lead through four innings of the opener and withstood a pair of two-run homers for Muscatine (14-29, 2-18) to claim seven of eight in the season series, thanks in great part to a fast start and a flurry of a finish in the second game.

Bennett Mann’s ICCAC-leading 11th home run of the year – a three-run shot – gave the Tigers (20-28, 8-12) a 3-0 lead in the first inning of game two. MCC manufactured two more runs in the second for a 5-0 advantage that lasted until the top of the sixth.

An error, a single and walk loaded the bases for Muscatine, and the Cardinals chased starting pitcher Alex McCune from the mound on a two-run single by Sebastian Gomez. Robin Felix greeted sidearmed reliever Prince DeMarco with an RBI blooper to right, and Austin Fridley followed with a run-scoring single to make it 5-4.

With runners on the corners, Joben Barnes chopped a ball up the third-base line that Parker Rolfes fielded while straddling the chalk. A ‘fair’ call from the home plate umpire loaded the bases and brought Grife from his perch in the MCC dugout.

After a brief but entirely one-sided discussion, Grife was ejected and Muscatine’s comeback continued. Alejandro Lugo lifted a sacrifice fly to right field that tied the game up, but DeMarco got another flyout to end the frame with the score tied at 5-all.

“You want to touch it foul as soon as you can so it doesn’t bounce back or you get a bad roll or something,” Grife said of the bouncing ball up to Rolfes up the third-base line. “So I don’t know, it’s one of those things I didn’t handle as well as I should have.

“The way I saw it, (Rolfes) was coming up because it was on (the foul) side and he touched it on the outside of the foul line, but the umpire was up there closer than me so that’s just the way it went.”

The Tigers appeared to have harnessed the momentum back with a one-out double from Rolfes in the seventh, but the rally didn’t materialize.

MCC turned to its bullpen again in the top of the eighth, and Schyler Kane (3-1) got a pair of strikeouts while retiring the Cardinals in order.

Alexis Melendez grabbed a bat for the first time all day and came through with a pinch-hit single to lead off the home half of the eighth. Pinch-runner John Krause moved up on Colin Schroeder’s sacrifice bunt and then took third when Austin Allen’s fly to right was dropped.

With runners on the corners, one out, a left-hander on the mound and a lefty in the on-deck circle, Muscatine made the obvious choice to intentionally walk Daryl Blaskovich and face Russell instead. With the bases loaded and the infielders playing on the grass, Russell belted a hanging first-pitch curveball from Paul Burkhart (1-2) that towered into a strong wind coming out of right field and found the base of the chain-link fence for the game-winning hit.

“My at-bat before that I was leading off the bottom of the seventh and I just swung way too hard, so I knew that at-bat (in the eighth) I didn’t want to try to do too much,” Russell said of his team-leading 29th RBI. “I was just trying to get the ball in the air, get a sac fly.”

His swing said otherwise.

“Yeah, it was a big swing. It was a bad pitch.”

Krause sauntered across home plate and the dugout emptied as players met Russell on the infield to celebrate the team’s first walk-off win of the spring.

Blaskovich, who had driven in the eventual game-winning runs with a two-run double in the first game, thought he might be put on the spot again.

“It’s funny because I was talking with Pedro (Lopez), ‘It’s going to be me, it’s going to be me,’ and then Krause advances (to third) on the miscue so I knew they were going to put me on,” Blaskovich said. “And I’ve played with Ty since seventh grade, so I knew he was going to drive us in.”

Russell also had a two-run single in the opening game, and he’d plated another run when he grounded into a double play earlier in the nightcap.

Even from somewhere beyond the boundaries of Shawn Williams Field, Grife knew the lefty-lefty situation favored MCC.

“I’ll take Ty Russell in that spot any day,” Grife smiled. “He’s been my three-hole hitter for two years for a reason, and he’s swinging it a lot better lately. He’s the right guy to have up there for us, so that’s good that it worked out.

“But like you said, I didn’t see it.”

Kane picked up the win for his scoreless inning of relief work, locking down what had been a fine start from McCune until the sixth. McCune allowed just three singles in five scoreless frames until the Muscatine rally. He allowed five hits and four runs (three earned) with a walk and a season-high nine strikeouts.

“We’ve been talking about killer instinct when (McCune) gets up in the count, putting hitters away,” said Grife. “He did that a little more today. As he matures he’s going to get better and better.”

Austin Battaglia (2-4) took the win in the opener, going five strong innings before a two-run shot by Gomez brought Grife to the mound. Rolfes struck out the first three batters he faced to preserve the 6-3 lead, but a walk and a two-run homer by Jake Redlinger to start the seventh tightened it back to a one-run contest.

Rolfes settled back in and struck out two of the next three hitters to seal the 6-5 win.

“We needed to get things going our way,” said Grife. “We’d been struggling a little bit so to pull three out of four this weekend is really good for us. We got to our 20th win, which was a goal for this weekend and we achieved it, so that gives us a little momentum going into the final week with the (Region XI) tournament right around the corner.”

The Tigers made the most of their eight hits in game one. Russell’s two-run single in the third plated Ryan Thrasher and Cole Schroeder, and Mann led off the fourth with a double to left. Back-to-back RBI singles by Thrasher and Schroeder got MCC going again, and Allen singled before scoring on Blaskovich’s double into the left-field corner to make it 6-1.

Muscatine reliever Nick Huber allowed only one hit over the final three frames, and the Cardinal bats came to life with two-run round-trippers from Redlinger and Gomez. The comeback came up short, though, and Marshalltown secured its first of two wins on the day.

“You know how baseball is, you play almost every day and you’ve got to keep it rolling,” said Blaskovich. “I think the last two wins got us to 20 so that’s a big number, and now we can just roll into next week.”

Closing out a 12-game homestand to end the regular season, MCC hosts NJCAA Division II No. 16 Iowa Central for a make-up doubleheader on Tuesday. The ICCAC D-I slate closes out next weekend as the Tigers entertain Indian Hills.

“It’s a streaky game and even though it’s kind of an individual game, it’s very much a team game,” said Russell. “If some guys are struggling, the whole team struggles, but just as of late we’re pulling it back together, turning the corner again and it’s the right time of year.”