John Jennings walks off for UMass baseball in extra inning win over CCSU

By Kyle DaLuz

(Daily Collegian/Judith Gibson-Okunieff)
(Daily Collegian/Judith Gibson-Okunieff)

Time and time again, John Jennings has come through for the Massachusetts baseball team.

The Minutemen failed to convert on scoring chance after scoring chance in Tuesday’s matchup with Central Connecticut State at Earl Lorden Field, and they appeared destined for their third loss in four games.

But after UMass (7-13, 2-4 Atlantic 10) previously went 1-for-6 with three strikeouts with runners in scoring position, the Minutemen tied the game in the bottom of the ninth on the strangest set of circumstances and then took the 6-5 victory on a Jennings single in the following frame.

A ground ball off the bat of Hunter Carey in the bottom of the ninth inning appeared to be a routine double play to the shortstop before it took a wild bounce off the edge of the infield grass over Blue Devils (13-17, 6-6 Northeast Conference) shortstop Dean Lockery’s head into centerfield to advance the tying run to second in the form of pinch hitter Alec Norton. Jon Avallone’s high chopper back up the middle then forced an errant throw into the CCSU dugout to tie the game at five apiece and force extra innings.

The stage was then set for Jennings, UMass’ senior captain, in the bottom of the tenth. With two outs and Mike Hart standing on first after a fielder’s choice, Jennings stepped to the plate looking to give the Minutemen their first victory of the season on its home diamond.

With a 2-1 count, Hart dashed toward second base on an attempted steal and the throw from Blue Devils catcher Nick Garland appeared to be on target to end the inning. But Hart alertly avoided the tag on his head-first slide and slapped the backend of second base with his right hand as the dugout on the third base side erupted with relief and excitement.

“It was a great slide,”  Minutemen coach Mike Stone said. “We just had to (steal) at some point in that at bat. In a situation like that you have to get on second base to give yourself a chance to win a ballgame. You have to take a chance.”

Jennings added: “I think he went to the backside of the bag, so it was tough for the shortstop to put down the tag. So it was a nice job by him.”

After running the count full, Jennings was waiting on a breaking ball to put a charge into. CCSU left hander Stanley Wolpiuk granted that wish, and Jennings launched a shot back up the middle and into centerfield for the walk-off base hit.

“He looked like he was locked in,” Stone said. “They weren’t going to give him much to hit – a 3-2 breaking ball. He did a great job. He hit it hard.”

With two outs and a charging Hart approaching third base, Stone had no choice but to wave him in, not knowing whether his No. 3 hitter could reach home safely or not.

“I was just going to send him no matter what in that situation and give it a shot,” Stone said with a chuckle.

Jennings, like his teammates watching it transpire from the bench, just hoped it was hit softly enough to give Hart a chance.

“I was hoping he was (going to score). I saw the centerfielder was playing pretty shallow, but Mike’s pretty fast,” Jennings said.

The throw to the plate was off target, as Hart slid into home on his stomach as Jennings rounded second base, seeing a bench once filled with teammates emptied, with the mob of Minutemen heading his way after the first walk-off hit of his collegiate career.

“We finally decided to do something at the end of the game,” Stone said. “We talked about playing our best in the second half of the game. It didn’t look like it was going to happen. Fortunately, people stepped forward and executed and came through. If you’re going to win some games, you definitely have to do that.”

Kyle DaLuz can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Kyle_DaLuz.