Winter Invitational brings baseball back to Minute Maid

College tournament hosts first games without Tal's Hill in center field

HOUSTON -- After the first day of the 2017 Houston Winter Invitational, Central Missouri has already guaranteed itself a better showing than a year ago, when the Mules lost all three of their games at Minute Maid Park.

In the last of three games involving six NCAA Division II teams on Friday, the Mules used a four-run eighth inning to defeat Arkansas-Fort Smith, 8-4.

• Houston Winter Invitational schedule

The fifth annual tournament, hosted by the Astros and owner Jim Crane's alma mater, Central Missouri, continues with three games on Saturday and concludes with three games on Sunday. Crane was a standout pitcher for the Mules from 1973-76, posting a 21-8 record and 2.42 ERA. He holds the Division II College World Series single-game record of 18 strikeouts.

Central Missouri (5-2), the highest ranked team in the field at No. 3, collected 15 hits, but none was bigger than Justin Graff-Rowe's three-run double in the eighth, which gave the Mules a 7-4 lead. Rowe's double down the left-field line off Korbin Polly scored Blake Wilfong, Travis Able and Jackson Schnurbusch.

Graff-Rowe's go-ahead double chased Polly (0-1) from the game. Elijah Dilday greeted Conner Mangham with a double down the right-field line, scoring Graff-Rowe, who was 3-for-5 with three RBIs and two runs.

Collin Nevil had three hits and scored twice for Central Missouri, which is ranked third in the nation among NCAA Division II teams. Wilfong, Able, Dilday and Erik Webb added two hits each. Webb, the designated hitter, had two RBIs.

Logan Allen had three of the Lions' nine hits. Jace Pitchford had two hits and scored three times for Arkansas-Fort Smith (5-3). Dion Williams and Anthony Seminaris each had two hits for the Lions.

Luke Mercer (1-0), the fourth of five pitchers for Central Missouri, earned the win. Lions starter Hayden Harvey got a no-decision. In six innings, the right-hander allowed four runs -- three earned -- and 10 hits, striking out five with one walk.

Game 2: Texas A&M-Kingsville 4, Chico State 1

Travis Geiser came up with the big hit and Seth Hubert provided the pitching as Texas A&M-Kingsville remained unbeaten with a 4-1 win over Chico State in the second of three games on Friday in the Houston Winter Invitational at Minute Maid Park.

Hubert was superb, allowing only one hit and no runs over his eight innings. The right-hander, who hasn't given up a run in 14 innings this season, allowed only a fourth-inning single to Cameron Santos. Hubert (2-0) struck out five and walked one.

While Hubert was shutting down the Wildcats, the Javelinas struggled early against Chico State starter Hunter Haworth (1-1), who didn't allow a run until Kingsville's four-run seventh inning.

With one out in seventh, Geiser hit a bases-loaded triple, scoring Christian Caudle, Dallas Stefano and Levi Zents. Joshua Croft doubled in Geiser, who made two outstanding fielding plays in center field. Haworth allowed four runs and six hits in 6 1/3 innings, striking out 10 and walking two.

Chico State (6-3) managed only two hits. In the last of the ninth, the Wildcats' Brian Pozos hit a pinch-hit triple off reliever Nick Hutchison. Pozos scored on Santos' groundout.

In addition to Geiser's decisive triple and Croft's double, Caudle, Stefano, Zents, Hunter Perkins and Pablo Hernandez all singled for the Javelinas (4-0).

Game 1: Tarleton State 9, St. Mary's 6

Players from St. Mary's (Texas) and Tarleton State experienced something Friday that even the Houston Astros haven't: a baseball game at Minute Maid Park without Tal's Hill, which had been a fixture in deep center field since the park's inception in 2000.

Renovations began in the offseason for the removal of Tal's Hill, which had a unique incline, as well as the in-play foul poles. The distance to center field from home plate has been diminished from 436 feet to 409 feet.

There were no home runs to center field, but Jake Hasbrouck's two-run home run in the eighth inning contributed to Tarleton State's 9-6 win over the Rattlers.

Donnie Perez's two-run home run, his third of the season, into the left field Crawford Boxes in the ninth inning completed the scoring for St. Mary's (4-4).

Hasbrouck collected two hits and four RBIs. Jon Tauzin and Jose Reyes had two RBIs each for the Texans (6-1), who scored in each of the first five innings. Blake Adams, Francisco Rodriguez and Ben Mauseth scored twice for the Texans.

Nathan Hickey (2-0) pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in relief to earn the win. St. Mary's starter Zack De La Garza (2-2) took the loss.

Richard Dean is a contributor to based in Houston. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.