The fifth-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College assumed sole possession of first place in the MACJC North Division baseball standings with an 8-6, 5-3 home sweep over division rival Itawamba Community College Sunday afternoon at Gerald Poole Field on the Scooba campus.
With the sweep, head coach Chris Rose’s 21-7 Lions have already matched last year’s EMCC overall win total with a month of regular-season play still remaining. Now also 8-2 within the division, East Mississippi enters the week’s action percentage points ahead of Northeast Mississippi (13-11, 6-2) and Mississippi Delta (16-10, 7-3) atop the division standings.
Postponed one day due to rain, Sunday’s opener began with the Lions owning an early 6-1 lead after the home team produced runs during each of the first three innings. EMCC answered Itawamba’s first-inning solo run with a pair of scores in the bottom half on Trent Waddell’s bases-loaded walk and Tyler Odom’s subsequent sacrifice fly to left field. After adding an unearned run in the second, the Lions increased their lead to five runs with five consecutive two-out hits in the third, highlighted by RBI singles from Blake Key, Dylan Vuncannon and Chase Nyman.
In relief of starting pitcher Tyler Odom, Joshua Griffis worked a pair of scoreless innings for EMCC before allowing four straight singles and a walk that all came around to score and tie the contest at 6-6 after five innings. Sophomore reliever Conner Burton put out the fire by getting the final two outs in the fifth and keeping the visitors off the scoreboard during the final two innings.
Meanwhile, East Mississippi loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the sixth off ICC reliever Ben Aldridge. Odom and Key responded with an infield hit and a ground out, respectively, to account for the final margin.
Burton, a right-hander from East Webster High School, did not allow a hit, while striking out two and walking two, in his 2 2/3 innings of relief work to pick up the victory in relief and improve to 3-1 on the year.
Offensively in the opener, all but one starting position player had at least one hit for the Lions. LeDarious Clark, of Southeast Lauderdale, led the way with a 3-for-4 effort at the place, including a double, while Odom, from Oak Grove, went 2-for-3 with two runs batted in.
As they did in the opener, the Lions fell behind 1-0 in the first inning of the nightcap as starting pitcher Da’Keith Burton struggled with his control during his first collegiate start on the mound. After sandwiching a hit batsman between a pair of walks and allowing leadoff hitter Drew Wheeler to score on a wild pitch, Burton gave the ball to freshman Andrew Crane. The all-state hurler from Pascagoula High School rose to the occasion and promptly struck out the side with the bases loaded to minimize the first-inning damage for EMCC.
The Lions claimed their first lead of game two by going through the batting order in the second inning. A two-run, opposite-field triple by Key followed by a run-scoring infield hit by Kyle Liberto put the home team on top 3-1. However, Itawamba answered with a pair of runs in the top of the third to make it a 3-3 contest. Leadoff walks to Ethan Gill and Andy Bowman both led to ICC runs on an RBI single from Cameron Coker and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Gable Butler.
But that was the only offense Itawamba could muster off Crane the rest of the way. The 6-foot-4 right-hander settled in nicely and allowed only one base runner – a fifth-inning single by Bryce Williams – over the final four innings while inducing nine groundball outs during that closing stretch. Crane improved to 3-0 on the year by scattering four singles over seven innings with three strikeouts and four walks.
EMCC rewarded Crane for his efforts on the hill by producing a pair of go-ahead runs with two outs in the fifth inning. After Waddell kept the inning alive by getting hit by a pitch, Colton Caver and Odom reached ICC starting pitcher TJ Watson with back-to-back RBI doubles to provide the final margin.
Following an 11-hit team effort in the opening game, the Lions added eight more hits in the nightcap. Key and Liberto each went 2-for-3 at the plate to close out the division sweep.
East Mississippi returns to the diamond Tuesday with a 1 p.m. road doubleheader against Northeast Mississippi in Booneville. The Lions will then travel to Goodman to meet Holmes in a 2 p.m. Saturday division twin bill.