Staying in the zone
Success on the mound in the tournament hasn't been limited to overpowering pitchers — those that don't stray far from the strike zone are doing just fine.
Nevada (Mo.) starter Steve Kuligowski fits the bill, a lefty who is effective because he pounds the zone. He was at the top of his game Wednesday night, tossing a complete game in the Griffons' 4-2 victory over the Liberal Bee Jays.
The win moved Nevada to the final six teams tonight, and eliminated defending champion in Liberal.
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"He puts the offense on their toes," Nevada manager Ryan Mansfield said. "They know every pitch is going to be around the zone. When you're throwing three pitches for strikes like (Kuligowksi) was, then hitters can't be selective. It becomes more of a guessing game."
Kuligowski was not dominant, but he pitched to contact and his defense backed him up. Liberal, which entered the game second in the tournament in team batting average, could only muster six hits against Kuligowski.
It was a redemptive tale for Kuligowski, who took the Griffons' lone loss in the tournament.
"I knew I was better than that last game," Kuligowski said. "I was actually more comfortable tonight. I didn't mind the fact that it was an elimination game. I think this time it was a lot easier for me on the mound."
Boom or bust
Liberal often went for the big play on Wednesday night. Rarely did it pay off, however.
The Bee Jays were sent home in a 4-2 loss to Nevada in large part due to their three errors and wildness on the mound (three wild pitches and five walks). Two of the four Nevada runs were unearned.
"In that split-second, they're trying to make an intelligent decision," Liberal manager Chris Joblin said. "If they make it, then it's a great play and if it doesn't work then everyone says, 'Oh, you shouldn't have thrown that.'
"I'm not going to fault my guys for trying to make a big play."
Two errors in the second inning led to Nevada grabbing a 1-0 lead, then a wild pitch from starter Jared Moore plated the second run for the Griffons. Another error in the fifth inning set up Nevada to score its final two runs.
"I don't think it had anything to do with it being an elimination game or the situation being too big to handle," Joblin said. "I just think it didn't work out for us tonight."
Defending champs out
Defending the championship has been a difficult challenge in recent years — Liberal became the 17th straight champion to fail to repeat.
The mark on the winner's back has been too much of a burden for every champion since the 1994 Kenai Peninsula (Alaska) Oilers, who defended the championship from the previous year.
"Any time you have a chance to go up against the defending national champions, it's really exciting," said Nevada's AJ Krist, who scored two runs to help knock off Liberal. "I mean this was a huge deal for us to come out here and beat them."
— Taylor Eldridge