SENATOBIA — Mississippi Gulf Coast rode the strong arm of Josh Lewis and grinding at bats late to beat Northwest 9-5 at Jim Miles Field, taking a 1-0 in the best-of-three NJCAA Region 23 playoff series.
"That was fun," Gulf Coast coach Rodney Batts said. "That's the biggest game of the year. You go into a series like this, the first game sets the tone."
Game 2 starts at 3 p.m. Friday. The Bulldogs (33-14) hopes to avoid a third game, which would be played immediately following if the Rangers (30-13) win. Play will be streamed at http://nwccrangers.com/watch.
The winner advances to the Region 23 Tournament next week at LSU-Eunice. Pearl River is already in the six-team regional, and Meridian, Hinds and Itawamba won openers Thursday.
Lewis (So, Theodore/Mobile Ala.) was huge, going 8.1 innings to improve to 9-1. He struck out eight and allowed nine hits. Only three of his five runs were earned as the game teetered back and forth.
"It's my first playoff game in college," the left-hander said. "It was an emotional game, so it's good to come out here and get the win."
Colby Cagle (So, West Harrison/Lizana) broke a 5-5 tie in the eighth with a gutty two-out at-bat after a Chase Fagan (R-So, Hancock/Poplarville) single. He fouled off four straight pitches before flaring an RBI single to score Alden Davis (Fr, Pascagoula/Pascagoula), who led off the inning with a walk.
"I was seeing it, but I wasn't quite getting the bat where I wanted," Cagle said. "I ended up coming out on top. I fouled four or five off. I just knew I had to put it in play to get the edge the team needed. I just popped it out in front of the left fielder."
Lewis retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning, and Gulf Coast went into insurance run mode in the ninth. Castor Lee (Fr, Gulfport/Gulfport) led off with a pinch-hit triple, and he scored on a single by Dylan Menhennett (So, Biloxi/Biloxi).
Northwest misplayed a sky-high two-out infield pop fly that bounced out of the first baseman's mitt between the mound and home, allowing Menhennett to score and make it 8-5. Logan McGrew (So, Sumrall/Sumrall) followed with an RBI single.
"This is huge," he said." Last year, we missed out on the playoffs because of some unfortunate reasons. It left a bad taste in our mouths. This just kinda makes it all the more sweeter."
Lewis got one out in the ninth, but with a string of righties coming up, Batts called on Kole Kittrell (Fr, Greene County/State Line) to finish it off. With two on, he allowed an infield single but got a strikeout to end the game for his third save.
"I felt better at the end than I did at the beginning," Lewis said. "I understand why he took me out, and Kole came in and shut them down."
Gulf Coast took a 3-0 lead in the second, with Cagle and Ike Williams (Fr, St. Martin/Biloxi) getting RBIs. Northwest got one in the third and took a 4-3 lead in the fourth with the help of a couple MGCCC errors.
McGrew tied the game up with an RBI groundout in the sixth before Dille's made it 5-4 with a two-out single.
Northwest tied it up on a solo home run in the sixth before the late-inning fireworks.
"We had some really good at bats against some good pitching," Batts said. "We hit some tough pitches. Some of them weren't pretty, some check swings and seeing-eye ground balls, but you have to put the ball in play for good things to happen."
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