It was an ugly start but a beautiful ending.
Southern catcher Jose de la Torre’s fly ball to deep left field dropped in, scoring Tyler Kirksey from third base in the bottom of the ninth inning Friday against Jackson State, giving the Jaguars a 6-5 victory and sending them to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game at Wesley Barrow Stadium.
“I’m a power hitter, and I was just looking for something soft to hit,” de la Torre said. “It’s a dream. I’ve been playing here three years, and to go to the championship after starting the season 3-15 is a dream.”
De la Torre’s hit completed an improbable comeback for the Jaguars, putting them in the championship game for the first time since 2010. The Jaguars have not won the conference tournament since 2009.
Southern personally ousted Jackson State, having beaten them 10-5 in the tournament opener. Jackson State had gone 2-0 against Southern in the regular season.
Kirksey led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk and went from all the way from first to third on a perfectly placed bunt by the next hitter, Rivers Frederick, which was a bit of redemption. Marcus Tomlin then walked. Relief pitcher Alex Juday, who started the opening game against Southern, then hit D.J. Wallace with a pitch.
With the bases loaded, JSU was set up for a double play at all four bases. However, the stage was set for de la Torre.
Southern had tied the score at 5 with three runs in the bottom of the eighth, the big blow Gavin Webster’s two-run double down the right-field line with no outs.
Tigers starter Jamal Wilson had shut out Southern since the second inning, but he loaded the bases in the eighth with two hit batsmen around a walk.
“I think the rain delay (before the eighth) affected him,” Southern coach Roger Cador said. “It’s tough to come back after you’ve been going well, and then you have to sit.”
The Jaguars didn’t let an awful start affect them too much. With such an opportunity on the line, the Jaguars fell behind 4-0 in the top of the first. Third baseman Frederick committed two errors, allowing at least two runs to score.
However, the Jaguars came back in the bottom half with the aid of an error on Jackson State second baseman Melvin Rodriguez, who fielded a grounder by Frederick and tried to start a double play or at least forceout Tyler Kirksey.
Kirksey then scored on a grounder by Tomlin, and Frederick later scored on Wallace’s sacrifice fly. That cut the deficit in half.
Meanwhile, Southern starter Harold Myles also had settled into a groove. After the first, he also pitched a shutout until the eighth, when the Tigers seemed to score an insurance run on Lamar Briggs’ triple and Gary Thomas’ single to center field.
“He pitched great,” Cador said, “and when his teammates played behind him, he was just as effective as (Wilson).”