SUGAR LAND, Texas _ With a championship date on the line, University of Central Arkansas senior righthander Brandon Hagerla took the ball and t0ok 0ver Saturday afternoon in the Southand Conference baseball tournament.
The Bears rode their workhorse’s arm into the championship game against Sam Houston State on Saturday night with an NCAA tournament automatic berth on the line.
““There was no question who we were going with,” said UCA head coach Allen Gum after Hagerla scattered 10 hits and walked none in a complete-game, 3-0 victory over Houston Baptist after the Huskis forced the decisive bracket final with a 6-2 victory over the Bears Friday night.. “There was no doubt about it. Because we know who he’s been every single day in our program. Our baseball program is very fortunate to have him, our university is very fortunate to have a guy like him, who is as loyal and full of substance as he showed today.”
Hagerla, UCA’s winningest pitcher and primarily a reliever at 10-3, made his fourth start and completed the game with 107 pitches in 90-degree heat.
“It was unbelievable,” said Gum. “It was hot, it was humid, it was tough. And he came off 50 pitches just the other night. But he is a true warrior. He’s a true champion.”
In two appearances in the tournament, Hagerla has tossed 12.2 scoreless innings. It was UCA’s fourth game in four days.
“At the end of the year, our underclassmen do the plaques for Senior Day, and the underclassmen pick one word that describes the senior,” said Gum. “And his (Hagerla’s) word was warrior. And there couldn’t be a better word. What he’s done for us this year, and what he’s done for our program… that game right there, but I’m talking about every day. Every day for our team. He’s just tremendous. I just can’t say enough about his effort today.”
The Bears finally got to HBU starter Cody Marshall with a single run in the fifth inning. William Hancock had a leadoff double in the fifth, moved to third on Eddy Sanchez’ sacrifice bunt and scored on Keaton Presley’s sacrifice fly to center field for the 1-0 lead.
In the sixth, Rigo Aguilar got an infield single on a high chopper that Marshall fielded and threw past first base, allowing Aguilar to go to second. He went to third on as passed ball and made it 2-0 on Brooks Balisterri’s sacrifice fly to right field, just beating the throw from HBU right fielder Brandon Brintz.
The Bears came back with another run in the seventh when Hunter Strong got a one-out single,Aguilar was hit by a pitch and Justin McCarty had an RBI single to right to bring in Strong for a 3-0 lead.
Hagerla was the beneficiary of outstanding defense in the bottom of the fourth inning when Central Arkansas shortstop Brooks Balisterri climbed the ladder to snag a hard line drive off the bat Taylor Depreta-Johnson, and then completed the unassisted twin killing by doubling off Brandon Brintz at second base. The play blunted a mounting Houston Baptist rally that started with back-to-back hits by Brintz and Spencer Halloran to start the frame.
“I’ll be honest, I was a little bit disappointed,’ said Gum. “We didn’t get a couple of bunts down and a couple of other things. I think we could have expanded the lead.”
The Bears played in their third SLC championship game in the past five seasons after winning the title in 2013 and losing in the championship game in 2014.
“It’s great. It’s good to be here,’ said Gum, who became UCA’s winningest baseball coach two weeks ago. “I had a feeling in my gut, after the Nicholls weekend, after the two games on that day, the way they were coming together, I thought we’d have a good chance of being in this position. Because these guys are tough, they love each other.
“When you have that combination, they’ll fight, they’ll fight like crazy until the end. And that’s what we showed today.”