MCPHERSON, Kansas — The magic number was one for the Cloud County Community College baseball team when it took the field Saturday in McPherson against Hutchinson Community College for the final doubleheader of the regular season.
One win and the T-Birds would do something no team in the program's history as a KJCCC member had done before them; earn the right to host a first-round playoff series when the Region VI Playoffs start on Thursday.
After falling 3-1 to the Blue Dragons to begin the day, the T-Birds rode timely offense and a gem from sophomore starting pitcher Jackson Dietel to a 6-2 victory in Game Two to earn the series split and fourth place in the KJCCC West standings.
"We didn't tell the guys anything about what was going on with the standings going into the day. They knew, but we decided a few weeks ago to not worry about any of the outside influences and control what we could control," said Cloud County head coach, Eric Gilliland. "We've been climbing every year and to be hosting a first-round playoff series was another step in the right direction."
Cloud County (31-22 overall, 18-14 KJCCC) had the right man on the hill in Game Four in Dietel, the team leader in wins (6-2), strikeouts (67) and innings pitched (72.0). The left-handed workhorse went eight strong innings, limiting a powerful Hutchinson team (38-18 overall, 22-10 KJCCC) to two runs on six hits.
The southpaw also struck out 10, one shy of his career high, versus just one walk in his 112 pitches.
"It was pretty fitting for it to be him," Gilliland said of Dietel. "He threw a few more pitches than we wanted him to going into the postseason, but it's hard to take him out with the stuff he had (Saturday). That's probably as good as he's been this year. His fastball velocity is up a little bit lately and it just helps with all his off-speed stuff."
The T-Birds' lineup helped provide some early run support, scoring two runs in the top of the third inning courtesy of sacrifice fly from freshman Clayton Loranger and a RBI single off the bat of freshman shortstop Connor Laux to scored Davis Pratt and Alex Rice in succession.
Pratt and Rice, batting in the No. 7 and No. 8 hole spots, respectively, would again be in the middle of Cloud County's scoring in the fourth.
After Hutchinson cut the lead to 2-1 in the bottom of the third, the T-Birds responded with a four-run fourth inning that commence on a two-run double by Pratt that scored redshirt freshman Ramon Vingochea and freshman Griffin Larsen. Pratt scored two batters later on a RBI single from Rice, who then capped the inning by scampering home on a wild pitch.
"It was huge to score there to keep the momentum on our side. And not only that, but Jackson went out and worked a put up a quick zero," Gilliland said. "We had a ton of quality at-bats up and down the lineup in Game Two. Baseball is a game of momentum and, with Dietel doing what he was doing, it was easy to keep it on our side after that."
Rice finished 2-for-3 with two runs scored and a RBI, while Pratt was 2-for-4 with the two RBI.
Hutchinson pushed one run across in the bottom of the eighth inning to creep back within four at 6-2, but sophomore right-hander Corben Peters was able to work a 1-2-3 ninth inning with a pair of punchouts to nail down the win.
The victory was a strong bounce-back performance for the T-Birds after dropping a tight 3-1 ballgame to begin the afternoon in what was a classic pitchers' duel between Cloud County's Josh Laukkanen and Hutchinson's Dylan Nedved.
Each pitcher went the distance, with Laukkanen holding Hutchinson to three runs, two earned on six hits while striking out three.
As for Nedved, he allowed just one run — a RBI double by Dietel in the third inning — while striking out 10.
"Josh pitched phenomenally. It was just a case where Hutchinson's guy, Dylan Nedved, was spectacular," Gilliland said. "Both pitchers made it really hard to score runs in Game One."
Laux led the Cloud County offense with a 2-for-3 performance in Game One, while Dietel, Vingochea and sophomore Grant Schmidt tallied Cloud County's other three hits.
The T-Birds will now turn their attention toward their first-round matchup against Allen County Community College (31-19 overall, 15-17 KJCCC), the No. 5 seed out of the KJCCC East.
No game times were officially set as of Sunday evening. The best-of-three series, with one nine-inning game each day, begins Thursday at Lee Doyen Field in Concordia.
For Cloud County, it enters the postseason winners in four of its past six games after the series split against the KJCCC co-champions in Hutchinson.
"I don't think we could have drawn this up much better. I like where we're at. We're playing with a sense of freedom right now," Gilliland said. "But this is still baseball. We have to take things game-by-game and continue to play well regardless of where we're at."