ANTHEM, Ariz. – The University of La Verne baseball team opened its 2014 season by nearly upsetting the top-ranked, defending national champion Linfield (Ore.).
The Leopards fought back from an early whole to tie the game in the top of the 9th, but Linfield's Clayton Truex drove in the winning run with one out in the bottom half of the inning and La Verne lost 8-7 on the first day of the Arizona Desert Classic at Boulder Creek High School.
After a slow start, the Leopards took advantage of the Linfield staff's shaky control and came up with clutch hits in the late innings to make a game of it.
Down by five runs in the 7th, La Verne loaded the bases when Josh Surdo, Michael Watson and Tyler Watkins reached in consecutive at-bats on two walks and a hit batter by Kyle Billeci. Surdo scored two batters later on a wild pitch and Mark Jebbia singled in the next at-bat to plate Watson.
Control issues persisted for the Wildcats in the 8th. Billeci hit Ben White to start the inning and La Verne capitalized. George Hollandand Surdo both singled to load the bases again, and Watson brought White home on a sacrifice fly to center field to bring the Leopards within three.
La Verne completed the long climb back and finally tied the game in the 9th. Jared Hovsepian and Surdo evened the game at 7-7 with clutch two-out RBI hits after the Leos filled up the bases for the third inning in a row.
At that point, all the momentum seemed to be in La Verne's favor. However, the control bug that had been plaguing the Wildcats bit the Leopards in the bottom of the 9th as Linfield packed the bases on two walks and a single. Truex then came through with a walk-off single to end the game.
Linfield jumped out to an early 6-1 lead after scoring four runs in the 1st inning and two in the 2nd.
Freshman Joseph Blair then made his collegiate debut in the 3rd inning and turned in four big innings to keep the Leopards within striking distance. The southpaw gave up five hits and two walks, but showed his ability to get out of jams and limited the No. 1 team in the country to just one run.
Holland finished the game 3-for-5. Surdo and Jebbia drove in two runs apiece.
Finn McMichael had four hits for Linfield. Truex and Jake Wylie each had multi-hit games with two and three, respectively.
The two teams played each other twice last season. The Leopards shut out the Wildcats 6-0 in the season opener and Linfield returned the favor on a midseason trip to California with a 13-1 victory.
La Verne will have two chances to earn its first victory on Saturday. The Leopards will face off against Whitman (Wash.) at 10 a.m. Shortly after the conclusion of that game, the Leos will take on George Fox (Ore.), which garnered votes in the Preseason Top 25 poll.