Patrick Merkling hurled seven innings of three-hit ball against one of the top-hitting teams in the NAIA and helped the No. 2-seed Lee Flames advance to the winner's bracket final of the Avista World Series with a 7-3 victory over No. 3-seed Oklahoma City.
Monday night's huge victory over the Stars sets up a key meeing between a pair of long-time rivals, Lee and Tennessee Wesleyan.
The Bulldogs earned the right to face the Flames by scoring an 8-6 win over Rogers State (Okla.) earlier in the day. Tuesday will mark the third meeting between Lee and TWC this season and the Flames hold a 2-1 advantage, but all three contests have been hotly contested.
In seven innings, Merkling (9-2) fanned seven Star hitters and walked three.The lefty capped off an outstanding performance by striking out three straight OKC hitters in the bottom of the seventh. Joe Fabre came on in the eighth and allowed one hit before getting the Stars to hit into a double play, while Jose Samayoa came in to close out the contest with a perfect ninth inning.
Coach Mark Brew improved his record to 2-0 against an Oklahoma City team that always presents a potent offensive attack. "I asked the guys to do only one thing tonight," he noted after the key win, "and that was to be agressive from the first pitch forward and not be passive at the plate."
The Flames answered the call. Jorge Saez opened the first inning rally with a one-out single. Blake Barber followed with the first of a three-hit night. Roberto Reyes came up with a fielder's choice that scored pinch-runner Max Harvell and Corey Davis had aone-base knock that plated Barber.
Three more runs followed in the second inning against OKU starter Blake Schwartz. Edmanuel Rivera got the rally started with a walk. Brady Renner stroked a single and Saez collected an RBI on a fielder's choice. Reyes drove home Saez with a one-base hit and the margin reached 5-0. Lee was also aided in the first two innings by four Star errors.
The lead grew to 6-0 in the third. Mike Moore pounded a double to left-center field and with two outs raced home on a single by Rivera. Schwartz settled down and retired the Flames over the next four innings. At one point, the right-hander whiffed five straight Flames. All totaled the OKU hurler worked 7 1/3 innings. He surrendered 10 hits and allowed five earned runs, while striking out 10 and walking one.
Lee's final score came in the eighth inning after Oklahoma City had fought back and made it a 6-3 contest, and continuing to put pressure on the Flames in almost every frame. Moore scored the final run after he singled to lead off the inning. Taylor Comford followed with a perfect sacrifice bunt and Roberto Duran banged out a single that put the finishing touches on the victory.
Barber's two singles and a triple paced Lee's hitting attack. Moore came up with a double, single and tallied twice, as did Saez. Defensively, Rivera turned in a pair of gems from his shortstop position. Rich Hawkins was the only Star hitter with a pair of knocks.
"Any time you face an Oklahoma City team, you can never relax until you get the final out," concluded Brew. "Merkling gave us seven excellent innings against a team that had power up an down the lineup. Both teams made some mistakes in the field but this was an important game and there was a lot of pressure on both sides."
Brew said he was not surprised at having to face Tennessee Wesleyan on Tuesday. "They are a team that is a lot like Oklahoma City (a lot of big bats) in the lineup. We've got to decide how we will attack that power in a meeting of the staff on Tuesday morning." Both the Flames and Bulldogs are now guaranteed no lower than a fourth place finish in the 10-team field.
Earlier in the day, Point Park (Pa.) stayed alive by eliminating SC-Beauford and LSU-Shreveport got a walk off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to eliminate host Lewis-Clark State College.