WARRENSBURG, Mo. –  Earning a comeback bid in the first round of the NCAA Division II South Central Regional Tournament, No. 2 seeded St. Mary’s erased an early three-run deficit to top No. 5 seeded Texas A&M-Kingsville 8-4 Thursday at Crane Stadium.

The Rattlers (45-8), whose pitching staff carries a nation-leading 2.20 ERA, advanced in the double-elimination tournament to play fourth-seeded Southern Arkansas at 7 p.m. Friday.

It wasn’t easy early against A&M Kingsville, as St. Mary’s fell in a 3-0 hole in the first inning. But the Rattlers responded with a game-changing, five-run sixth inning to take a 7-3 lead and control of the ballgame.

“I struggled right off the bat,” said St. Mary’s ace Carl O’Neal (Jr., San Antonio), whose squad ranks No. 2 in the nation. “But I always knew my guys would come to bat, so I wasn’t too worried about it.”

Third baseman Ivan Sigala (Jr., El Paso, Texas) led the Rattlers with three RBIs followed by right fielder Josh McElroy (Sr., Helotes, Texas), who went 2 for 4 with two RBIs. Catcher M.P. Cokinos (Jr., Houston) was perfect at the plate, going 3 for 3.

O’Neal, the Daktronics South Central Region Pitcher of the Year, shook off a bumpy start to improve to 13-0 on the season by striking out three in seven innings. Closer Jonathan Perez (Jr., San Antonio) clinched his 17th save of the season, which leads the nation.

The Rattlers began chipping away at the deficit in the second, when Sigala brought in shortstop Esteban Raygoza. Raygoza returned the favor in the fourth, bringing home Cokinos, who had a leadoff double off the wall to start the frame.

Then came the five-run sixth inning that put the game away, with Sigala and McElroy driving in two runs apiece to fuel the Rattlers’ comeback bid.

The rally started with the Rattlers loading the bases with a free base for Derek Moczygemba (Jr., Bulverde, Texas) and hits from Brandon Bates (Jr., Boerne, Texas) and Cokinos. Tyler Migl (Sr., San Antonio) kept the bags full for an RBI walk that was followed by a hard-hit single from Sigala to bring in two RBIs to increase the Rattlers’ lead to 5-3. Migl and Sigala were on the bags for McElroy, who smacked a 2-RBI single to end the five-run rally, 7-3.

The Rattlers’ final run of the game came in the seventh when a wild pitch brought Cokinos across. 

“It’s a big statement, but we came out kind of flat,” said McElroy, who led the Heartland Conference in steals with 17. “But we’re a team that isn’t going to give up, and when we put up a five-spot we really had confidence in ourselves and our coaches had confidence in us. It’s huge putting up eight runs.” 

The Rattlers are now on the winning track toward the regional title, which they could close with three more victories. The championship round is slated for Sunday.

“Getting this first one out of the way is big – get all the jitters out,” said McElroy. “I think now we are going to be more relaxed and we will be confident in the next game going in. I don’t those jitters will be there anymore and we’ll just play like we have all season and hopefully our pitching and defense holds up strong.” 

St. Mary’s greatest threat in the tournament is the No. 1 seeded Central Missouri, which lost its opening game to St. Edward’s, potentially changing the outlook of the entire bracket in the days ahead.

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