MONROE, La. – Arkansas-Little Rock qualified for its first-ever NCAA Regional with a 7-6 victory against Florida International (40-18-1) in the Sun Belt Tournament title game on Sunday. The Trojans (24-32) put together a perfect 4-0 record at the Sun Belt Tournament to claim the program’s first SBC Tournament title and become the first No. 8 seed in league history to win the conference championship.
UALR’s bullpen of Garret Graziano, Ryan Juris and Bubba Cooper combined to hold the high-powered FIU offense to three hits and one run over the final 5.0 innings, and junior Hector Acosta scored the deciding run in the top of the sixth on an error by the Golden Panthers.
Graziano picked up the win after limiting FIU to two hits and a run over 2.1 innings in relief of UALR starter Travis Henke. The Oklahoma City, Okla.-native was named the Sun Belt Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after going 2-0 with one save and a 1.59 earned run average in three relief appearances. Graziano was joined on the All-Sun Belt Tournament Team by Henke, junior Greg Garcia and senior Casey McCollum.
Juris took the mound for UALR in the top of the seventh with the Trojans leading 7-6, and a runner on first and one out. The senior left-hander struck out Rudy Flores before picking off Jeremy Patton to end the inning, and then retired the Golden Panthers in-order in the eighth before giving way to Cooper at the start of the ninth. The Marion, Ark.-native allowed a leadoff walk to Yoandy Barroso and a two-out single to Garrett Wittels, but got Patton to ground out to third to end the game and pick up his second save in as many days.
Sophomore Myles Parma and McCollum provided most of the offense for UALR on Sunday, with both players hitting a home run during a five-run rally in the second. McCollum gave the Trojans a 3-2 lead with a two-run blast to left, and Parma followed three batters later with a three-run shot to left center. McCollum and Acosta led the Trojans with two hits apiece in the win, with Acosta scoring the game-winning run in the top of the sixth as his slide into third on a stolen base attempt jarred the ball from Patton’s glove and allowed him to take home.
FIU reliever Kyle Fitzpatrick (7-2) was tagged with the loss, despite allowing just two hits and one unearned run, with six strikeouts, over 4.0 innings. Patton went 3-for-4 with three runs scored and two RBI to lead the way for the Golden Panthers. FIU’s four pitchers combined for 12 strikeouts in the loss, but starter Daniel DeSimone allowed five hits and six runs (five earned) over 1.1 innings.
The Trojans jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first after Garcia opened the game with a leadoff single to center. Garcia stole second base and moved over to third as the throw to the bag from FIU catcher Jose Behar sailed into the outfield. Junior Nick Rountree made it a 1-0 contest when he plated Garcia with a two-out, infield single to third.
UALR’s lead didn’t last long however, as Flores gave the Golden Panthers a 2-1 lead in the bottom half with a two-out, two-run homer to left. Henke retired the first two batters of the game, but Patton came through with a two-out single and Flores followed with a two-run shot to left.
UALR erupted for five runs in the top of the second to take a 6-2 lead, fueled by home runs from McCollum and Parma. McCollum put the Trojans back on top when he followed up a double by Acosta with a two-run shot to deep left – his second homer of the year. Junior Cameron Bentley and Garcia drew walks off of DeSimone and Parma made him pay with a three-run homer off the scoreboard in left center to give UALR a 6-2 lead and chase FIU’s starter from the game.
Trailing by four, the Golden Panthers rallied for three runs in the bottom of the third to make it a one-run ballgame. Patton got the rally going for FIU with a two-run homer to right, and the Golden Panthers soon loaded the bases with one out off a pair of singles and a hit batter. Behar brought FIU within a run with a RBI single through the right side, but Henke was able to get outs from the next two batters to strand a pair of runners.
Graziano came on to pitch for Henke at the start of the fifth, and the Golden Panthers rallied to tie things up at 6-all thanks to a pair of doubles from Patton and Mike Martinez. FIU was able to work its way back into the game behind the relief efforts of Fitzpatrick, who held the Trojans to two hits with six strikeouts over 4.0 innings in relief of DeSimone.
UALR finally got something going off of Fitzpatrick in the top of the sixth as Acosta and McCollum both walked to put two runners on with one out. Jose Velazquez took the mound in relief of Fitzpatrick after the second walk, but could not prevent UALR from reclaiming the lead. With two runners on and two outs, Acosta attempted to steal third and was thrown out by Behar. The ball got away from Patton, however, and Acosta was able to score on the play to put the Trojans ahead 7-6.