FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. —
Western Illinois found a ‘defensive stopper’ in former Claremore Zebra shortstop Travis Stafford.
The first-year starter for the Leathernecks created a memorable ninth-inning that helped lead his team to the biggest win in school history.
Stafford’s two clutch defensive plays in the bottom of the ninth inning not only brought smiles to his former Claremore High School baseball coach Brent Payne, but they proved to be key components in Western Illinois upsetting No. 1 Arkansas, 7-5 Sunday afternoon in the series finale at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Before a crowd of more than 5,000 fans — mostly all calling the Hogs and donning their Razorback Red — Stafford left a valuable impression on everyone inside the stadium.
Displaying his silky-smooth skills and ‘dirt-bag’ attitude, the former Zebra shortstop never flinched under pressure.
With Arkansas trailing 7-5 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, Western Illinois faced the Hogs’ heavy-hitters — led by freshman right-fielder Tyler Spoon.
Western Illinois closer Brian Loconsole opened the ninth with a lead-off walk to Arkansas center fielder Jacob Morris.
One play later, Spoon’s sharp grounder to Stafford’s left-side advanced Morris to second base with one out and the game-tying run at the plate in Arkansas shortstop Brett McAfee.
After Loconsole got behind in the count with three straight balls to McAfee, the Leathernecks reliever rallied back and McAfee laced a routine 6-3 groundout to Stafford for the second out.
With Morris still residing on second base and Arkansas down to its final out, former Edmond Deer Creek standout Brian Anderson was the Hogs’ last chance to keep the game alive.
Anderson, who finished 2-for-5 with a double and three RBIs, got behind 0-2 in the count as Loconsole worked the outside corner to perfection.
On the third pitch to Anderson, the sophomore shortstop ripped Loconsole’s fastball to the left-center field gap but Western Illinois left-fielder Erik Maki tracked down the fly ball to seal the Leathernecks’ first win of the season.
Stafford, following the final out of the game, flashed a smile and thanked his former coaches (Brent) Payne and Derek Short for watching another historic moment in his baseball career.
For his parents, Brent and Dana Stafford, it was definitely a day to remember.
Stafford finished the three-game series with a 1.000 fielding percentage, two put-outs, 11 assists and one double play.