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Tigers win on grand slam

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Throughout the spring, the Fort Hays State University baseball team has usually needed to win slugfests. The Tiger starting pitching has struggled mightily. That was the case again Wednesday in a home contest against NAIA Bethany College. Fort Hays trailed 10-3 entering the bottom of the fourth. The Tigers eventually won, 14-12, on a two-out grand slam from senior first baseman Horace Johnson to cap a seven-run eighth inning at Larks Park.

"We have done it before," coach Steve Johnson said. "It seems like that has been our whole season. Our position players just continue to swing it, and continue to fight. It's disappointing that we get off to that start with the first couple of arms out."

Afterward, Johnson talked with his team alongside the third base line. Starter Nathan Zimmerman went two innings and allowed five runs (one earned). He committed a throwing error on a bunt that led to three runs and allowed two homers on back-to-back pitches. Ty Thomas, the first reliever, permitted five runs and coaxed just four outs.

"This team wants to fight, this team wants to win -- we have to have pitchers join that," Johnson said.

Then, Nathan Briar worked 2.2 innings and allowed two runs, both unearned. Gus Strunk, normally the second baseman, retired all nine batters he faced and moved to 1-0.

"He looked like he is No. 1 on our staff the way he pitched and that's all about attitude and tempo and effort," Johnson said. "He did a great job for us."

The contest featured five homers -- one by Tiger senior center fielder Clayton Garland -- eight pitchers and 27 hits. Multiple subs entered the game on both sides, including Bethany changing right fielders mid-game.

"We are just trying to instill a winning culture here," first-year Bethany coach Andrew Bartman said. "More than the Xs and Os of baseball, just teaching us how to do things the right way. We yanked our right fielder after he didn't run out a ball and threw a helmet. Those are the little things that, from what I am told, went on in the past."

Fort Hays moved to 14-24, while Bethany dropped to 19-23. The game had been postponed earlier in the season because of high winds.

"I am from Central Illinois, and this is my first time being winded out," Bartman said.

Johnson, who is tied for the team-high with seven homers and paces the Tigers with 36 RBIs, also has struck out 27 times, second-most on the club. He opened the game 0 of 4 against several soft tossers, including starter Victor De Anda.

"We knew that he was a threat, but anybody here is a threat to be honest with you," Bartman said. "It doesn't really change the approach that we've had all day. We actually had a lot more success with our softer guys who were a little bit below bat speed. That worked for us early. Today, it was about our bullpen getting work before the weekend."

In the eighth, Kevin Czarnecki and Cooper Langley opened with a single and double, respectively. After a RBI groundout, Kodie Fewin delivered a pinch-hit, run-scoring single. Following a strikeout, Jordan Miller singled, Casey Sedbrook struck out and Garland coaxed a bases loaded walk.

"Very, very mature at-bat," Johnson said. "Clayton Garland has been on fire the last few weeks, and when he gets that opportunity with the bases loaded, you know his first thought is, 'Hey, I am going to win it right here.' He didn't get his pitches, he didn't expand the strike zone, and he trusted the guy behind him."

Then, Johnson, known for his mammoth swings, took a vicious cut on a pitch from Taylor Plante and missed. On a 1-1 offering, Johnson blasted the homer over the right-center field fence.

"He has been accused of overswinging before," Johnson said.

"He did not have a good day going. He had several very, very poor at-bats, but a senior understands the moment and that's the first time he didn't pull off and hits the (opposite field) home run."

Fort Hays closes the home portion of its schedule with doubleheaders Friday and Saturday against Lindenwood (Mo.) University.