FORT SMITH, Ark. – The Rattlers split a hard one with the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith Friday after becoming the top-ranked team in the country, falling in what might seem to be a hard to swallow road-blues.
St. Mary’s (27-6, 20-3) pitched a familiar shutout of the Lions (15-15, 11-11) in a 2-0 Game One win, and scrambled in the top of the ninth to try to gain a lead in Game Two but fell 3-1.
While Rattler losses are rare, nearly all of the Rattlers’ losses this season have been on the road (4-6), including all three of their Heartland Conference upsets.
Despite the split day, the doubleheader was packed with what makes the number-one team in the country so, in particular with the Rattlers’ top pitcher, Carl O’Neal (Jr., San Antonio).
O’Neal has kept his precision for the strike zone consistent throughout the season no matter where the Rattlers are playing, earning himself an improved 0.47 ERA after his fifth shutout Friday. The ace pitched nine strikeouts, going the seven-inning stretch for his sixth complete game. O’Neal remains without a loss to his name, improving his record to 9-0 in Game One’s victory.
The match was a stalemate until the Rattlers struck in the fifth in what would be the only scoring inning for either team. A single from Brandon Bates (Jr., Boerne, Texas) brought him to third after a Lion error on Esteban Raygoza’s (Sr., San Antonio) sacrifice bunt advanced him two bases. Bates reaching third allowed for a successful sacrifice fly from Ivan Sigala (Jr., El Paso, Texas) to bring in the first Rattler run.
The final run was uncomplicated. A clean triple from freshman Mario Maldonado (Laredo, Texas) brought home Raygoza for Maldonado’s 16th RBI to close the game, 2-0.
It was a similar scene in Game Two with a scoreless match until the bottom of the sixth. A leadoff, solo homerun from the Lions only had the Rattlers down one by the end of the inning, but its power proved strong as the Lions geared to score a run in each the seventh and eighth innings while the Rattlers remained scoreless.
In their last chance in the top of the ninth, a break in the game came when M.P. Cokinos’ (Jr., Houston) would-be game ending strikeout turned into a free base after a wild pitch that kept the Rattlers alive. Smacking a double to right field from designated hitter Bates charged for a Rattler comeback that advanced pinch runner Weston Heiligman (RS-Fr., Castroville, Texas) to third.
Raygoza kept this comeback going with his third hit of the day – a single to left than brought in a Rattler run to put them on the board 3-1. But as the rally started with two outs, the Lions were able to grab victory after a real game-ending strikeout.
The Rattlers hope to shake off their road loss as they face the final game of the three-game series against the Lions Saturday at 1 p.m. in Fort Smith, Ark.