April 26, 2012

By Ken McDowell - Sports Editor

LA JUNTA - A weekend split with the Otero Junior College Rattlers locked in a second place finish in the Empire Conference for the Northeastern Junior College (NJC) Plainsmen baseball team.

The four pack opened Saturday in La Junta with the Plainsmen taking the first game by a 3-1 score behind another outstanding performance by NJC sophomore Derek Neeper.

The right pitched his seventh complete game of the season while improving to 11-2, allowing just one run and striking out five. His 11 wins breaks a school record for most victories in a season. He also has 90 strikeouts, which leads the conference and is second in the nation.

The NJC offense provided just enough pop as the Plainsmen handed Otero sophomore Dylan James his first loss of the season. James entered the game with an 8-0 mark.

NJC Coach Bryan Shepherd had high praise for another outstanding performance by Neeper.

"Every time Derek takes the mound he pitches his heart out," he said. "He was right at 100 pitches again and threw another complete game.

"We also beat a good pitcher in Dylan James, who was 8-0 going into the game and is one of the best pitchers in the conference. We got to him and they made a few mistakes and we were able to get the win."

In the second game on Saturday the Plainsmen let a 3-1 lead slip away and ended up losing by a 4-3 score in 12 innings. NJC left the go-ahead runs on base in the eighth, 10th and 12th innings before Otero won the game in the bottom of the 12th on a walk-off double.

Freshman lefty Ryan Reno started the game and pitched well, but three errors helped the Rattlers knot the score before taking the win in 12th inning.

"Ryan threw the ball well and was doing a great job," Shepherd observed. "But he made a mistake on a pick-off attempt which led to a run and we mis-judged a couple of fly balls in the outfield that allowed Otero to tie the game and beat us in 12 innings."

On Sunday sophomore Nick Miller of the Plainsmen took the mound and threw six innings, leading NJC to a 3-1 victory. Miller improved to 6-2 with the win while allowing just one run.

Miller has 78 strikeouts and is second on the team behind Neeper.

"Nick pitched well and was our designated hitter and also had a couple of hits," Shepherd reported. "Tyler Sieg came in the seventh and gave up a run, but battled hard to get the save after walking a couple of guys."

In the final game of the series on Sunday NJC led 1-0 early on an RBI single by Miller, but ended up falling by a 5-1 score. The score was tied 1-1 until Otero scored two runs in the fourth inning and added three more in the sixth to put the game away.

Freshman lefty Brennan Henry started the game  and was tagged with the tough luck loss.

"We jumped out early and did well, but then shut it down offensively for some reason," Shepherd said. "Otero was able to get a couple off of us in the fourth and then put the game away with three more in the sixth inning."

NJC and Otero finish the regular season series even at 3-3. Otero is the only team in the Empire Conference the Plainsmen do not have a winning record against.

"Otero has a great team, but they have been just a little bit inconsistent this year," Shepherd said. "It's been back and fourth between us, but I told our guys the biggest thing about last weekend is that we didn't play our best.

"We didn't swing the bats well and this is the first weekend all season that we didn't play that well. But we still had a chance to win four games, but you have to give them credit because they have some good pitchers."

On Wednesday (April 18) NJC played a single nine inning conference game at Western Nebraska Community College and ran away with a 14-5 victory.

Freshman Mitch Bouchard pitched six strong innings to pick up the win for NJC.

"Mitch pitched well and we really swung the bats well in that game," Shepherd said. "We had nine runs on seven hits in the first inning. If we would have hit at all like that against Otero we would have been in good shape."

NJC stands at 37-16 overall and 21-7 in the conference, and just a couple of weeks ago was ranked 21st in the nation. Lamar Community College clinched the Empire Conference title with a 15-6 win Tuesday at Trinidad State, and is 24-5 in the league and 42-10 overall. NJC still has two more regular season games with a twin-bill Sunday at Trinidad State College.

Lamar still has one game left with Trinidad.

The top four teams in the Empire Conference, Lamar, NJC, Otero and Trinidad, advance to the Region IX Tournament May 4-6. While Lamar will host Trinidad State, the Plainsmen will entertain Otero in the opening round, beginning Fri., May 4 at 1 p.m. in a best two-out-of-three series.

On Sat., May 5 both teams will play an if-needed double-header, starting at 12 p.m. All Region IX Tournament games will be nine inning affairs.

The top two teams will meet at the highest seed the weekend of May 11-12 to decide the Region IX Tournament champions in a best two-out-of-three series.

"We have second place wrapped up and Otero is pretty safe in third place, so it looks like we will play Otero in the first round," Shepherd said. "It really doesn't matter where we play because we have played well on the road this year.

"We went into Lamar a few weeks ago and won three games, so we will just go after Otero and try to get Lamar or Trinidad and try to get the championship."