Courtesy of Concordia University Chicago
DULUTH, Minn. -- On Friday afternoon, it was time to put aside the wild conclusion of Thursday's win and focus on Bethel University from Minnesota. Three hours later, the Cougars had prevailed in another thrilling if not as wild finish. Once again, CUC's offense produced in the late innings as they rode out a 10-7 win over Bethel at Frank Wade Municipal Stadium in Duluth.
The Cougars came out swinging as Jose Mercado and Bryan VanDuser both singled sharply to left field to start the game. A double steal attempt then went awry as VanDuser was out at second, although Mercado was able to take third. He scored one out later on Andrew Massey's line single to right.
The Royals came back to match that opening tally in their half of the first. Sam Horner led off with a single to center and was still at first with two out when Joey Fredrickson sent a line drive to the gap in left-center. Bethel continued to work some quality at-bats against Keaton Conner, and a walk and single gave the Royals a 2-1 lead before a grounder to third ended the inning.
Another two-out run on a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch helped the Royals extend their lead in the second. Bethel then made it three consecutive innings scoring as a fielder's choice grounder made the score 4-1 and put Conner's pitch count at 73.
Bethel starter Noah Luedtke was sailing along as he started the fourth, striking out the first batter to make it eight consecutive CUC batters retired. Massey halted his string by drawing a walk, and Mitch Wilson singled just off the diving first baseman's glove. Luedtke got the second out on a pop-up, but Kevin Coppin worked a walk, taking a couple of very close pitches. That brought up Connor Brandon, who took ball one and then ripped a shot down the line past the third baseman. The ball rolled all the way to the wall and cleared the bases, tying the game at 4-4.
The Royals threatened to answer with their fourth consecutive scoring inning as they put runners on first and second with one out. But Noah Dressler saved the day, slipping a third strike past the first batter he faced and then retiring the next on a grounder to short to keep the game deadlocked.
With Dressler's effort helping to stem the tide, the Cougars went back on the attack. Mercado and VanDuser singled to left, duplicating the first two at-bats of the game. Silva then walked to load the bases, forcing Bethel to go to the bullpen for Carson Selin. The right-hander got the first out on a force at the plate, but Wilson hit a hard chopper back up the middle. The shortstop did well to get a glove on it, but he could not stop his momentum, and two runs scored as a result, allowing CUC to reclaim the lead at 6-4.
The score would stay that way until the seventh. Bo Lovdahl led off with the Royals' first hit against Dressler, and that ignited Bethel's offense. The following four batters all collected hits, including Michael Wesner's tying two-run single and Sam Horner's go-ahead knock.
"Here we go again" might have been on the minds of Cougar fans as Brandon hit his second double of the game to lead off the eighth. Keegan Tyrell's single moved Brandon to third and turned over the batting order again. With some in the ballpark expecting Mercado to put down the bunt, he did anyway, and it was a perfect one to the right side, perfect enough to beat it out while the tying run scored. The Bethel reliever came back to retire the next three hitters and keep the score tied at 7-7. But Mercado would be heard from again.
Mike Formella had gotten the final out of the seventh, and he was back on the mound in the bottom of the eighth. Even after three innings of work yesterday, he was at his best in this moment in striking out the side. Momentum was now on CUC's die as the ninth inning loomed.
The Cougars caught a break to open the ninth as Wilson reached on an error by the second baseman. Brady Roberts then came to bat, looking to get the bunt down. He was unsuccessful on two attempts that went foul, but he was swinging with two strikes. Roberts went the opposite way, and the ball got up into the wind, carrying it over the right fielder's head. The ball hit at the base of the wall, and Wilson was coming all the way round to score the go-ahead run. Later in the inning, with runners on the corners, Mercado came up for the sixth time in the game. Mercado swung through strike one while Tyrell stole second. The next pitch was right in the zone, and Mercado laced it to right-center for a clutch double and two insurance runs. The shortstop's final line read 5-6 with one run scored and three runs driven in.
"Jose usually sets the table for us, but his last two at-bats (driving in runs) were really great for us and gave him confidence," said CUC head coach Mike Stawski. "When Jose gets on base as much as he did today, our offense is really hard to stop."
The insurance runs would loom large as Bethel, facing elimination, put their first two men aboard. However, Formella got a 6-4-3 double play out of a Royals' pinch-hitter and then got Horner to fly to right for the final out. The Cougars' closer has now pitched 16 2/3 innings since last Saturday and has not allowed a run in 11 of his last 12 appearances.
The Cougars (35-12) will now play UW-Oshkosh, the only other 2-0 team in the regional, on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. The winner will advance to Sunday's championship round only needing to win one more game out of a possible two.