CARY — Tampa’s Chase Sparkman took the mound in the NCAA Division II baseball tournament owning a third of the Spartans’ losses, but his selection to face Colorado Mesa in an elimination game wasn’t as dubious as it sounded.
The junior worked 8 1/3 innings and improved his record to 4-1 as No. 1-ranked Tampa improved to 54-3 overall with a 3-1 win over No. 4 Colorado Mesa (46-12) Thursday at the USA Baseball Complex.
Tampa, seeking a second straight NCAA Division II title, has three unbeaten starters, but the Spartans played their fourth game in six days. Sparkman staved off elimination with Tampa’s third consecutive victory since dropping its opener in the double-elimination event.
“Our guys have stayed focused,” Spartans coach Joe Urso said. “Since our loss, our practices have had more intensity, and it’s shown on the field.”
Tampa and Colorado Mesa meet again at 1 p.m. Friday with the winner advancing to the championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday in Cary.
In Thursday’s second contest, No. 2-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato (48-10) also won a third straight after an opening loss with a 5-1 victory over No. 6 Southern Indiana (47-13). The teams play again at 5 p.m. Friday for a Saturday berth.
Sparkman, making only his sixth start, led Tampa with his longest college outing. He scattered six hits and didn’t allow a walk with three strikeouts.
“It felt great,” Sparkman said. “I didn’t want the team to go home on my account.”
His performance was enough on a day Tampa’s slugging lineup was held without an extra-base hit.
“Sparkman threw 104 pitches and didn’t give up a walk,” Tampa shortstop Giovanny Alfonzo said. “That’s the biggest thing take from this. We had big plays on defense. We have different ways to win games.”
The pitcher’s duel was scoreless until the fifth inning when Alfonzo singled, advanced to third on a throwing error and came home on a single by Zach Gawrych. The right fielder was 2 of 3 with 2 RBIs.
Minnesota State, last year’s runner-up to Tampa, needed a comeback after falling behind 1-0. Left fielder Taylor Branstad, who was 3 of 4 with two RBIs and one run scored, doubled home two runners in the fourth. Catcher Nolan Johnson was 2 of 4 with one RBI and one run scored.
“It shows you this is a competitive tournament,” said Minnesota State coach Matt Magers of two schools battling back with three wins in a row after an opening-day loss. “We’re two teams that have been here before and understand what it takes to be successful. We haven’t lost two games in a row all year. We’re a resilient bunch.”