MOUNT PLEASANT - Central Michigan is alone in first place in the Mid-American Conference West Division.
Sam Russell's sacrifice fly scored William Arnold with the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning, capping a 7-6 win that saw the Chippewas scratch out single runs in seven different innings at Theunissen Stadium on Sunday.
"What a hard-fought game," said CMU head coach Steve Jaksa. "Neither team blinked and each team played hard all the way. We just ended up with one more run at the end of the day. I'm just really happy with our guys and the way they played today."
CMU improves to 26-21 overall, 14-7 in the MAC with the win. The Chippewas have a one-game lead over Toledo (24-22, 13-8 MAC) and Eastern Michigan (31-17, 13-8 MAC) with six conference games remaining.
Nate Theunissen's RBI groundout in the first and Robbie Harman's squeeze bunt in the second staked the Chippewas to an early 2-0 lead, but Toledo pushed across a pair of runs in the top of the third to tie the score. The Rockets loaded the bases with nobody out in the third, but managed only two runs: Wes White scored on Jeff Cola's double-play groundout, and Jim Vahalik plated an unearned run on a passed ball.
From there, the teams traded single runs in the top and bottom halves of the fifth and sixth innings. Toledo tied the score at 3-3 in the fifth when Dan Sherwood tripled to right, then was awarded home when Harman's relay throw skipped out of play. The Rockets returned the favor in the bottom half, as shortstop Chris Dudics mishandled a grounder with two outs that allowed Brendan Emmett to score from third.
Toledo again tied the score with another unearned run in the top of the sixth. With runners on second and third, CMU catcher William Arnold couldn't handle a pitch high and away, and Ben Hammer scored from third. The unearned tally knotted the score at 4-4.
The Rockets summoned Adam Tyson from the bullpen to start the bottom of the sixth, and Howard drove his second pitch over the wall in left for his third homer of the season. Howard finished 3-for-4 with a single, double, home run and two runs batted in on Sunday.
Russell, who was 2-for-3 with two runs and two RBIs, appeared to deliver an insurance run in the seventh with his two-out single that plated Jordan Dean and extended the Chippewas' lead to 6-4. Toledo, however, led off the ninth with back-to-back singles by Andy Mix and White, and the pair advanced to second and third on Vahalik's sacrifice bunt. Cola later singled with two outs to score both Mix and White, but Cola was thrown out at second to end the inning.
CMU's first three hitters reached base against Toledo closer Matt Zahel in the ninth, and with one out Russell's fly ball to right brought in Arnold with the winning run.
Mike Nixon worked the final four innings to improve to 2-0 for the Chippewas. He allowed two earned runs on six hits while striking out three. Zahel fell to 1-3 with the loss.
The Chippewas are back in action Wednesday, hosting Michigan State in a nonconference tilt at Theunissen Stadium. First pitch is set for 3:05 p.m.