HOUSTON — With the bases loaded in the fifth inning and Southern pitcher Jose De Leon struggling to keep a two-run lead, Jaguars coach Roger Cador slowly walked out of the dugout and pointed to his bullpen.
Three pitches later, Alabama State right fielder Waldyvan Estrada took a slow stroll himself, jogging around the bases after hitting a grand slam off left-hander John Thigpen that proved to be the difference in the Hornets’ 6-4 win in the MLB Urban Invitational at Minute Maid Park on Saturday.
“He threw me a mistake and I hit it,” Estrada said. “He left a fastball up, and I stepped up for my team.”
Although he had only allowed one run to that point, De Leon walked three batters in the inning, twice loading the bases. That’s when Cador called on Thigpen, who gave up the grand slam and a double before being pulled himself.
“He didn’t throw his No. 1 pitch,” Cador said of Thigpen. “He’s got a 1-1 count and he’s not a fastball pitcher, and he throws a fastball right over the plate. He’s going to learn from this.”
Offensively, there were positives for the Jaguars, who were shut out by Texas Southern on Friday. Catcher Jose De La Torre homered, right fielder B.J. Rowry had two hits, including a triple, and SU outhit the Hornets 11-6.
“We battled a little better, but our approach needs to get better,” Rowry said. “We know what we need to do. We just need to execute it better.”
Despite getting out-hit, Alabama State (6-1) made sure their biggest one counted.
“That was a long hit in a big park,” Alabama State coach Mervyl Melendez said. “You have to step up in certain situations, and Waldy looked for something he could drive, and he hit it.”
Things started positively for Southern (2-4). De Leon struck out four batters in the first two frames, using his 90-mph fastball to get himself out of trouble.
After being held scoreless for 10 innings, Southern scored its first run of the invitational in the second inning when Gavin Webster’s single to right field knocked in De La Torre.
Rowry led off the fourth with a triple to the hill in center field.
Two batters later, D.J. Wallace tripled to knock in Rowry. De La Torre followed with an RBI double to put SU up 3-0.
Then came the Hornets’ big fifth. An RBI ground out by Richard Amion brought ASU to within 3-1. After walking the next batter to load the bases, De Leon’s day was over.
Estrata’s slam to left-center field gave the Hornets a 5-3 lead, and freshman Dillon Cooper hit a solo shot in the sixth to make it 6-3.
De La Torre brought the Jaguars back within two runs with a towering homer to left field in seventh.
“I was really focused and waited for my pitch to hit and got a hold of one,” De La Torre said through an interpreter.
Hornets pitcher Joseph Camacho earned the win after pitching six innings, allowing four runs and striking out three. Matt Burnside struck out two in the ninth inning for the save.
SU will have one more chance for a win as the Jaguars play reigning SWAC champion Prairie View at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the final game of the invitational.
“We just aren’t doing all the little things we need to do to win,” Cador said. “They are painful now, but we will use them to learn from. We have the making of a really good team and I’m confident we will turn this thing around.”
Astros owner Jim Crane and baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson threw out ceremonial first pitches for the game that was aired live on MLB Network. … The Minute Maid Park roof was open for the second straight day, with clear skies and a temperature of 68 degrees. … There were 589 fans inside the 40,000-capacity park. … For the second straight day, SU did not commit an error. … After getting hits in his first six at-bats of the invitational, ASU senior Leo Rojas recorded two outs in the Hornets fifth inning when they sent 10 men to the plate.