Going the distance ... and then some ... in the opener

Courtesy Wartburg AthleticsRoger Kittleson (left) singled home the game-winning run in Wartburg’s 2-1 win against West Liberty in the first round of the 1964 NAIA World Series.

1964 FIRST ROUND

This is the first of a seven-part series recapping classic games in NAIA World Series history.

The 1964 NAIA World Series got off to an impressive start with Wartburg College nipping West Liberty State 2-1, in a 16-inning marathon.

Playing at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph, Mo., the teams each scored in the first inning, then the only other run would cross the plate 15 innings later.

Lewiston series fans can relate to the fact the opening game of the tournament, which started at 11 a.m. Central time, lasted just under four hours and pushed the tournament back two hours. The final game of the day ended just before midnight.

Wartburg College, in its first and only NAIA World Series appearance, jumped on West Liberty starting pitcher Frank Ujcich’s first pitch of the tournament for a triple, then scored two batters later. The Hilltoppers scored in the bottom half of the inning to tie it at 1 before the run drought began.

After tossing the next 13 innings without allowing a run, Ujcich finally was relieved by future major league pitcher Joe Niekro in the 15th inning, setting a series record for innings pitched with 14. The Knights’ starting pitcher, Leon Carley, pitched into the 13th inning before being replaced, and still holds the series record for the third-most innings pitched in a game at 12.

In the top of the 16th, Niekro allowed a leadoff walk, followed by a fielder’s choice and fly out, moving the Knights go-ahead run to third. Wartburg shortstop Roger Kittleson, who went hitless in his first six at-bats, then singled to right for what turned out to be the winning run. However, it would be the Knights’ only series win, and they were eliminated after two consecutive losses.

West Liberty got its second wind after the marathon game, and became the first team in the series history to lose its first game, and come back to win the championship. The Hilltoppers won five consecutive loser-out games, including two on championship day. Ujcich shut out Georgia Southern in one semifinal and set the record for most the consecutive scoreless innings pitched at 22, which still stands. The West Liberty pitching staff still holds the record for least runs allowed in six games with 11.

After taking the loss in the 16-inning game, Niekro came back and threw two complete-game victories, including the first championship game. Joe, the brother of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, later would pitch in the MLB World Series with the Minnesota Twins.

The 16-inning game is tied for the longest series game by innings along with Winona and Defiance in 1961. Winona won that one 10-9

Wartburg, located in Waverly, Iowa, currently is in Division III in the NCAA as a member of the American Rivers Conference. West Liberty and Fairmont State are the only two teams from West Virginia to play in the series. The Hilltoppers’ other NAIA World Series appearance came 26 years later in Lewiston. In the 1990 series, they went 0-2, losing to Auburn-Montgomery and Dallas Baptist. West Liberty currently is an NCAA Division II team in the Mountain East Conference.

NAIA tidbit

Northeast Louisiana made just one trip to the NAIA World Series, but left its mark in the record book.

In the 1970 Series in Phoenix, the Indians of Monroe, La., went 4-2, and finished runner-up. In a semifinal-round game, Northeast Louisiana defeated Eastern Michigan, 7-6, behind a complete game by pitcher Van Pardue. Of the six runs Pardue allowed, only one was earned, because of his, and his teammates’, poor defense. Northeast Louisana set a Series record by committing eight errors, the most by a winning team in a Series game. Pardue himself had two miscues.

The victory, against the previously undefeated Eagles, set up a winner-take-all championship game the next day between the two teams. The title game went to the bottom of the ninth tied at 0, when Eastern Michigan catcher Dave Smigielski got his first hit of the tournament. Smigielski, who previously had gone 0-for-12 in the tournament and was inserted into the lineup in this game for defensive purposes in the eighth inning, lined a two-strike, two-out pitch into center field to score the Hurons’ winning run.

It was one of four NAIA World Series championship games decided in walk-off fashion, and the only title game with just one run scored.

— Denny Grubb

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