Champs! Eagles win first postseason title since ’72, beating Ecclesia

The OC Eagles pose with the NCCAA Central Region title banner after beating Ecclesia on Thursday for the regional title.
The OC Eagles pose with the NCCAA Central Region title banner after beating Ecclesia on Thursday for the regional title.

OKLAHOMA CITY (May 9, 2013) – Oklahoma Christian’s baseball resume, to be honest, has been a bit thin through the years, at least when it came to championships. The Eagles beefed it up considerably on Thursday with an historic win that featured a dramatic finish.

OC beat Ecclesia (Ark.) 5-1 at Dobson Field to win the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region title, the Eagles’ first postseason crown in 41 years, and ended the game by turning their first triple play of the season.

OC (25-23) advanced to the NCCAA World Series, set to begin Wednesday at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio. It will be only the second national-tournament appearance for the program, with the other coming in 1972, when the Max Dobson-coached Eagles won the NAIA District 9 and Area 3 titles before finishing third in the NAIA World Series.

In one year, the Eagles went from an 8-34 squad that lost 25 straight games to one that matched the most wins in the six seasons since the university revived its baseball program.

“This was fun,” first-year OC coach Lonny Cobble said. “The guys played well. I’m glad for these seniors who have been here and now they’re going to get to go out and play in a championship. That’s going to be fun.

“I am so grateful to (OC Athletic Director) Curtis Janz for giving me an opportunity to coach this team and I’m grateful to (former OC coach) Chuck White for laying the foundation of this program. I am truly blessed to be in this position.”

The Eagles won the NCCAA regional the hard way, dropping a 2-0 decision to Central Baptist (Ark.) in the opener on Tuesday before roaring back for three straight wins. On Wednesday, OC eliminated Central Baptist with a 5-4 win, then routed Ecclesia 15-2 to set up a winner-take-all showdown.

OC’s pitching proved outstanding for the entire tournament. On Thursday, Tyler Sturges started his second straight game and allowed Ecclesia (25-22) only one hit – an infield single by Eduardo Torres in the first inning – and thanks to a double play faced only the minimum 15 batters through five innings.

“I felt pretty good today,” Sturges said. “Usually, most of my trouble has been in the first couple of innings, so I thought if I could just get through the first two with no hits or no runs that I was going to be good the rest of the way.”

Senior closer Chris Burgess came on in relief and struggled a bit, giving up two walks and a run in the sixth and a single in the seventh, but relied on his defense to finish out the game and record his ninth save, extending his school record.

“He got the job done,” Cobble said. “I knew he would. We were going to live and die with him. He has got it done most of the year. That was the plan, to give Sturges five (innings) and Burgess two and hope that was enough.”

Jordan Lopez, named the tournament’s most valuable player after going 6-for-11 at the plate in OC’s four games, singled to center field off Ecclesia starter Saylor McClish (2-3) to start the game. Caleb Price’s sacrifice bunt moved Lopez to second base and Blake Stringer’s single to left field brought Lopez home.

The Eagles loaded the bases with no outs in the second inning but came away empty after Sean Murphy hit into a double play and Cory Eastwood popped up.

OC clung to the 1-0 lead until the fifth. With one out, Eastwood reached on an infield single and went to second on an error by Ecclesia shortstop Yohan Melendez. Eastwood scooted home on a single to left field by Lopez.

In the top of the sixth, OC made it 3-0. Markus Carr reached on a bunt single and went all the way to third base after Ecclesia third baseman Caleb Kelley threw the ball away. Caden Cleveland’s sacrifice fly scored Carr.

The Royals took advantage of uncharacteristic wildness by Burgess to score their only run in the sixth. Chris Rega drew the first walk. Pinch-runner Marcus Davie went to second base when Brady Dupree walked and later stole third base. Alec Naifeh’s sacrifice fly made it 3-1, but Dupree was stranded at third base when Burgess fanned Torres to end the inning.

Caleb Price’s leadoff double in the seventh helped the Eagles score two insurance runs. Thanks to a single and an error, Ecclesia put runners on first and third base with no outs in the seventh, but then came a play that long will be remembered in OC baseball lore.

Ecclesia’s Randy Montes de Oca grounded to Murphy, OC’s third baseman, who fired to Eastwood to force out Brandin Fry at second base. Eastwood threw to Stringer at first base to retire Montes de Oca. Ecclesia’s runner on third, Melendez, held up briefly before trying to score on the play. Stringer threw to Cleveland, OC’s catcher, who tagged out Melendez to end the game.

“I never really imagined it ending that way, with a triple play,” Cobble said. “I think I’ve only ever seen one other triple play in 20 years of coaching. It was an exciting way to end this one.”

Lopez said the Eagles always believed that they’d win the tournament, even after losing the first game.

“I knew we’d be standing here,” Lopez said. “It was just a matter of time before we put it all together. I was never worried. I thought this would be a 30-win season before this regional, but I think we’ll be fine. The farthest we could have got this year is where we’re going, to Ohio, so we’ll take it from there and good things will happen.”