San Antonio – The Rattlers took their first victory in the Heartland Conference Baseball Tournament over the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith in style, with a Derek Moczygemba home run and a primed defensive game launching them straight into the winner’s bracket.
Friday’s game was a playoff game, mind you, meaning the Lions (27-21) weren’t taking their faceoff with No. 1 seeded St. Mary’s (42-8) without grinding their teeth, causing the Rattlers to keep on their toes in a tight 2-1 victory at Incarnate Word’s Sullivan Field.
“I’m happy to help my team out,” said Moczygemba, the Rattlers’ leftfielder, “and I’m glad we got the win.”
Rattler ace Carl O’Neal (Jr., San Antonio), the Heartland Conference Pitcher of the Year, started off the tournament for the Rattlers on the mound by maintaining his clean, undefeated record that improved to 12-0 in Friday’s win.
St. Mary’s moves on to play No. 3 seeded Newman – which upset No. 2 seeded St. Edward’s on Friday – at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Hilltoppers will meet up against the Lions at 12 p.m. in an elimination game.
Against UAFS, O’Neal started the game with a three-up, three-down defensive stop in the first inning that quickly jumpstarted the Rattler bats in the Heartland Conference regular-season champions’ first playoff game of the year.
Leadoff man Billy Richard (Jr., Schertz, Texas) jetted as he did all season with a leadoff single for the Rattlers’ first of eight hits on the day. Recently moving up to the No. 2 hole after hitting eighth for most of the season, Moczygemba (Jr., Bulverde, Texas) slapped down a sacrifice bunt that would force a throwing error by the Lions’ pitcher, advancing Richard to third.
Moczygemba’s play allowed the league’s leader in RBIs, M.P. Cokinos (Jr., Houston), to pop a sacrifice fly to bring Richard home and the Rattlers in the lead at 1-0. But that wouldn’t be Moczygemba’s only hand aiding the Rattlers’ runs.
The lead was short-lived for the Rattlers, as the Lions responded with a run of their own in their very next at-bat in the second, scoring on a passed ball to tie the game at 1-1. The Rattlers would go three-up, three-down in the bottom of the second, setting up a two-strikeout inning for O’Neal in the third to keep it a tie game – until Moczygemba stepped up for his second at-bat.
With two down in the bottom of the third, Moczygemba picked the first playoff game of the season to smack his first homer of the year, pounding a solo down the right-field line that would be the game-winner in the 2-1 showdown. His solo shot helped clinch the crucial first game of the tournament that lands St. Mary’s in the winner’s bracket.
After blasting the home run, O’Neal even joked with Moczygemba in the dugout that he now leads the Heartland Conference Tournament in home runs.
“It’s huge,” Moczygemba said of the win. “It’s huge for our pitching staff keeping the pitch counts down, and it obviously keeps us at more rest than if we lost the game.”
With the total runs for the day wrapped up by the third inning, the game became a testament to each team’s pitching and fielding finesse.
“When I come in, every pitch is crucial,” says closer Jonathan Perez, who collected his 16th save to tie for the nation’s lead. “The pressure’s on, but you don’t really think about it.”
Perez would get his time on the mound Friday. O’Neal’s quality start consisted of six strikeouts but more importantly lasted seven innings, keeping a stacked and rested bullpen that must last throughout the entirety of the tournament. Relief pitcher Kyle Bumpas (So., El Paso, Texas) started the close out in the eighth, striking out one out of his four batters faced that allowed the comfortable position for Perez to step in a seal the game.
“It’s just awesome to just be able to do my job and to help contribute to the team,” says Perez, whose 16 saves represent a St. Mary’s single-season record. “Especially in a game like today when defense mattered most and just to do my part to help get the win because it was a close game.”
The Rattlers showed their ability to hold the Lions’ seven hits into only one run with several key plays, including a pickoff from O’Neal, a caught stealing by Cokinos and grabs from Moczygemba in left and Tyler Migl (Sr., San Antonio) at first.
Richard and Moczygemba combined for half of the Rattlers’ hits Friday with two apiece, while the last four hits were singles from Brandon Bates (Jr., Boerne, Texas), Esteban Raygoza (Sr., San Antonio), Migl and Mario Maldonado (Fr., Laredo, Texas).
While leaving eight men on base and scoring just two usually isn’t par for the Rattlers, the well-played defensive game all but made up for it.
Moving into the winner’s bracket, St. Mary’s will face Newman University in Game Two Saturday after the Jets upset the No. 2 seeded St. Edward’s in the first game of the tournament. The Rattlers went 6-0 with Newman during the regular season, but it’s not something the skilled and maturing St. Mary’s bench will bank on.
“It’s playoff atmosphere,” Perez said. “(Newman) showed it’s hot at the plate and are definitely hitting the ball. It’s definitely not a team we are going to take lightly. We’re just going to come out like a playoff game with that intensity up and just try and take it to them.”
The Rattlers will play Newman University Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Sullivan Field at Incarnate Word. In the winner’s bracket, if the Rattlers win against Newman they will have a bye game in round three, in which the loser of the St. Edward’s-UA Fort Smith game will play the loser of St. Mary’s and Newman.