The Middlebury baseball team moved one step closer to claiming the NESCAC Championship, as the Panthers defeated #16 Tufts 5-1 in the winner's bracket game on Saturday at Colby. Middlebury (22-14), which is the only undefeated team in the double-elimination tournament, will play Tufts for the title on Sunday at 9:00 a.m., with a second game to follow if the Jumbos win game one. The winner of the tournament earns the NESCAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers are seeking their first title since 2006.
The contest was scoreless until the bottom of the second, when the Jumbos (27-8-1) broke through for a 1-0 lead. Nick Falkson started inning with a double off the wall in left field and later raced home on a flare to right by Harry Brown.
The Panthers came through with a pair of runs in the fourth, moving into the lead. Andrew Hennings started the inning with a single to right field and Jason Lock was hit by a pitch, putting runners on first and second with no outs. Sam Graf tied the game with a single to left field as Hennings came around to score from second. Lock made it a 2-1 Middlebury lead later in the frame, scoring on a base hit to left by Raj Palekar that hit the ground right in front of a charging Mike McLaughlin in left field.
In the bottom of the inning, a pair of nice defensive plays by the Panthers helped retire Tufts in order. Alan Guild made a running catch in foul territory in right field and Graf snared another foul ball, sliding just before the fence in left to end the inning.
Middlebury added another run in the top of the fifth, extending the margin to 3-1. Graf doubled to left center as Brown almost made a diving catch, allowing Hennings to score all the way from first.
The Panther defense came up with another key play in the bottom of the seventh as Ryan Rizzo made a tremendous running catch in left center, taking away an extra-base hit from Will Shackelford. Tufts did get runners on first and second with one out, but reliever Conor Himstead entered the game for starter Colin Waters and set down the next two batters, sending the game to the eighth inning.
Middlebury tacked on a run in the eighth, when Guild lofted a sacrifice fly to right center to plate Graf for a 4-1 lead. The Panthers pushed another run across in the ninth as Brooks Carroll singled, stole second and third before scoring on a wild pitch.
Himstead finished the game off in the bottom of the ninth, recording his NESCAC-leading eighth save. The Panther reliever retired all eight batters he faced in 2.2 innings. Waters (3-3) gave Middlebury a quality start, giving up just one run on six hits in 6.1 innings for the victory. Middlebury finished the game with 10 hits, as Hennings, Rizzo, Graf and Carroll each had a pair.
For the Jumbos, Falkson went 2-4 for a pair of doubles, while pitcher Tim Superko (6-1) suffered his first loss of the season. Superko went four innings, allowing three runs on six hits.