CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO- For the second day in a row, there was some walk-off magic at Capaha Field, as Southeast Missouri State came away with a 9-8 win on an Alex Nielsen ground ball that ate up Belmont second baseman Hunter Holland, bringing home the winning run.
Interestingly, this is the second day in a row the Redhawks have walked off with a 9-8 win, and in both cases, the walk-off play came from a third baseman named Alex. On Friday, you may remember, the walk-off hit came from Alex Canty. Canty was under the weather on Saturday, so Nielsen stepped in and came through.
Nielsen had a nice day overall, collecting two hits, as did Trevor Ezell, who went 3-for-5, pushing his average up to just a shade under .400 at .398. Justin Dirden had a two-double day, and catcher Wade Stauss hit a monster home run to right field. The most exciting player on the field on Saturday, though, was left fielder Devon Wilson.
Wilson helped the Redhawks clinch the series over the Bruins with his bat, with some small ball, with his legs on the base paths, and on defense.
In the second inning, the right-handed hitting Wilson rocked a line drive up against the wall in right-center for a triple. The only thing that kept it from being an RBI hit was a fantastic relay throw from Holland to the plate to catch Tristen Gagan trying to score. Power isn’t the first tool that comes to mind when you watch Wilson play, but he showcased it there.
One inning later, he was just as effective while hitting a ball 60 feet as opposed to 360 feet, as he laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to bring in a run. Once on base, he swiped second base, moved to third on a passed ball, and scored on the Stauss homer.
In the fifth inning, it was a four-pitch walk that put him on to lead off the inning, and in the seventh, he was the linchpin of the biggest play of the game to that point. Trailing 8-7, SEMO sent Wilson to the plate to try to bunt home a run once again. Wilson got the ball down perfectly, bringing home the tying run, and his speed forced the Belmont pitcher, Michael Matter, to rush his throw to first. The throw got up the first base line and Wilson ended up at third. While he was eventually left on base, that’s an example of a player’s speed forcing a misplay and generating a scoring threat out of thin air.
And to cap off the perfect day at the plate, Wilson led off the ninth inning by getting hit by a pitch, closely followed by a steal of second base and a move to third base on a wild pitch. Then, you guessed it, he crossed the plate as the winning run on the grounder to second by Nielsen. In the final box score, he absolutely packed his stat line, going 2-for-2 with three runs scored, two RBI, a walk, a hit by pitch, and two stolen bases, and that probably doesn’t even do justice to how much havoc he caused.
Defensively, he also had the play of the game. Belmont’s Kyle Conger got a hold of one to left-center in the fourth inning that looked like a sure double (or perhaps a triple) against the wall. Instead, Wilson ran to the spot where the ball would be, timed his jump perfectly, and made a leaping catch up to take away extra bases. After the game, Southeast Missouri State head coach Andy Sawyers said that it was the best outfield catch he’s seen this season.
That’s not bad for a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be playing the outfield for SEMO.
“We recruited him for depth on the infield,” Sawyers said. “You see him run, and he’s a long strider, and you see him out there shagging, and you’re like ‘he looks like an outfielder to me.’ He didn’t have a great fall defensively, and we put him in the outfield in the springtime, and he has taken to it like a duck to water.”
Simply put, Devon Wilson was the most exciting player on the field on Saturday night, and it shows that the Redhawks do have the luxury of depth in some spots, because it’s not as if Wilson has been in a mainstay in the order all season. He’s appeared in 39 of the team’s 49 games, but this was just his 22nd start of the season. With his big day, his average is all the way up to .300 on the season, but just three weeks ago, he was hitting .250, and if you go back to the end of March, his average was all the way down at .209.
Being that it’s his first season of Division I baseball after transferring from Mineral Area College, it’s taken him some time to get adjusted to this level, but he has the look of a guy who’s putting it all together at the right time.
“He hasn’t got it going yet offensively, but what you saw tonight, backside triple, he might be our best bunt for a hit guy, he can be a very valuable weapon in the lineup,” Sawyers said. “Like a lot of junior college players, it takes him a while. The run tool, I wouldn’t say it’s elite, but it’s a well above-average run tool, and he can handle the bat, and he’s a well above-average defender in the outfield.”
In his postgame interview with local radio, Sawyers mentioned that he would take the top five hitters in his lineup up against anyone in the OVC, including Tennessee Tech, all the while conceding that the difference-maker for the Golden Eagles is the incredible depth and production at the bottom of their order.
Whether you agree or disagree with that specific point, the larger point, that SEMO boasts a ferocious top of the lineup, is valid. Danny Wright and Peyton Faulkner are great table setters at the top of the order with on-base percentages of .382 and .434, respectively. Trevor Ezell is hitting .398/.448/.552 with 16 doubles. Tristen Gagan has a slash line of .311/.385/.495 with 16 doubles and six homers, and Justin Dirden is hitting .354/.447/.680 with 18 doubles and 13 home runs. Wilson playing like he did Saturday, when his name was called, is a nice bonus on top of what they can expect from that core.
“He is a popular a guy amongst his teammates,” Sawyers said. “That guy, when his name is in the lineup, the team gets excited for him. That’s the kind of kid he is.”
With the way he played Saturday, serving as a spark plug for his team’s series-clinching win, you can bet on his name being in the lineup a whole lot more.