Photo courtesy of Dave Laketa, University of St. Francis
JOLIET, IL - Judson opened up the NAIA Baseball Opening Round of the National tournament on Thursday the same way that they closed out the regular season and the conference tournament. The Eagles upset #13 ranked Cumberland (TN) 7-4 to earn the program's first opening round victory in NAIA play and the 2nd NAIA tournament win ever. Judson has now won 18 games in a row and they will play again tomorrow in the winner's bracket against the winner of Thursday night's 6:00PM game featuring #1 York (Neb.) versus the #4 seed Mayville State (N.D.).
Judson utilized the long ball as the Eagles got two home runs from Johnny Amann and TJ Swank. They also benefited from five Cumberland errors, which led to three unearned runs for Judson. Judson wasted no time in getting on the scoreboard as Amann walked in the first inning and moved to second on an error off the bat of Cameron Balough. Amann then got caught in a rundown after a pitch by KT Greene, but the throw from second base to third base hit Amann in the back and trickled toward the dugout and he was able to score the game's first run. The Bulldogs would bounce back with runs in the second and third innings to take a 2-1 lead. Then, in the bottom of the third inning, Amann again was part of the action as he hit a solo home run to tie things up at two.
Nick Norris led off the fifth inning with a double and he was pushed to third base when Luke Rojas grounded out to shortstop. Amann then came to the plate and hit a sacrifice fly to center field that was deep enough to score Norris and give the Eagles a 3-2 lead. That score would hold until the bottom of the seventh when Amann reached base on a single. Balough then hit a grounder and the ball was thrown past second base into the outfield and Amann advanced to third and that ball was overthrown as well, allowing Amann to cross home plate for the third time in the game.
The eighth inning saw Judson gain some huge momentum when Ryan Burke walked and TJ Swank stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter. Swank came through with a deep home run over the left field fence to give Judson a 6-2 lead. Norris was the next batter and he hit a double down the left field line. He would then steal third base and come around to score when the throw to third went into the outfield.
Up 7-2 in the ninth inning, reliever Ryan Perez surrendered a 2-run home run with one out in the inning, but settled down and struck out the last batter of the game to give Judson the victory. Judson starting pitcher Craig Lipp had a strong outing by pitching 5 1/3 innings and only allowing one earned run on six hits with four strikeouts. Lipp improved to 9-2 on the season. Perez pitched the final 3 2/3 innings and struck out three to preserve the win.
Offensively, Amann finished the game 2 for 3, with three runs scored and two RBI. Ryan Burke also had two hits as did Norris. Norris scored two runs for the Eagles. Swank was 1 for 1 with two RBI.
Judson head coach Rich Benjamin was pleased with his team's performance. "It's good to win the first one the way the five-team bracket is set up. In postseason baseball, you usually don't get rewarded very often early in the game as you are facing some great pitching. Usually if you find some success, it's during your second or third time through the order and we stayed patient and kept having good at-bats and found some success late."
He also spoke about the importance of the offense coming through in the seventh and eighth innings. "It allowed us to loosen up a little bit. I had a good idea that one run wasn't going to be enough against a nationally-ranked program. They were going to find a way to score runs. The guys just competed and TJ Swank's home run was a huge momentum boost for our guys."
Finally, Benjamin spoke of his strong pitching, "Craig Lipp is as dependable as any arm we've ever had. He has the highest winning percentage of any pitcher to come through Judson University and we trust him a lot and we know he's going to compete. Ryan, being just a freshman, really came up big and took the game deep for us."
Judson improves to 45-15 on the season and they will play Friday at 2:00PM at Silver Cross Field in Joliet, IL. Come out and support the Eagles as they seek the NAIA Opening Round Championship!