MYRTLE BEACH — The temperature reading on the outfield fence showed a very un-baseball-like 39 degrees. Coastal Carolina had nonetheless been cruising since the second inning, though, and needing just three more outs to put away James Madison, all signs seemed to suggest the Chanticleers were as ready as their shivering fans to close out another win and escape the rest of this frigid Sunday afternoon.
Well, they would indeed get the win – eventually – but almost nothing else went according to plan in the final frame.
The visiting Dukes scored five runs in the top of the ninth to take their first lead of the game only to give it away again in the bottom of the inning with three ill-timed errors that led to two Coastal runs as the Chants salvaged a wild 8-7 victory in their official home opener at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark.
“There’s no greater way to learn how to play the game than to fail at it yet still walk off the field a winner,” CCU coach Gary Gilmore said. “... It’s a lot easier walking in that locker room now and going over the list of things we didn’t do well.”
The bulk of that list was surely scribbled during the top of that ninth inning.
Freshman reliever Alex Cunningham had already pitched three scoreless innings in his collegiate debut when he headed back out to the mound in the ninth with a 6-2 lead. James Madison’s Bradley Shaban opened the final frame with a sky-high infield pop-up in front of the pitcher’s mound. With nobody calling him off, Cunningham tried to handle it himself but couldn’t make the catch. And things only got worse from there.
Cunningham then walked Johnny Bladel and his day was done. Gilmore called for junior left-hander Austin Wallace, who registered a quick strikeout before yielding a single to Matt Tenaglia and back-to-back bases-loaded walks to Conner Brown and Cole McInturff. One of the Chants’ most reliable arms last season, Wallace was done after four batters and Gilmore turned to freshman righty Seth Lamando.
The rookie closer had picked up a save in the season opener Friday and got pinch-hitter Tyler Gregory to fly to deep center for the second out while another run scored on the sacrifice, making it 6-5. And then Casey Goss knocked a clean single to right-center to send in two more runs and complete the stunning rally, giving James Madison a 7-6 lead.
“They don’t pay me enough,” Gilmore joked of such games. “Those innings, they maybe last 20 minutes, but in your mind as a coach they last like forever. You go through these moments in every season. We completely self-destructed in the ninth inning.”
James Madison can empathize.
Because in the bottom of the ninth, it was the Dukes’ turn to come unhinged. Sophomore Chris Suseck led off and reached first on an error by Goss at shortstop as he bobbled a routine grounder. Junior Jacob May then laid down a sacrifice bunt, but he too would be safe as catcher Nick Merullo threw high to second base. Senior Justin Creel followed with a successful sac bunt, and senior Alex Buccilli was intentionally walked to load the bases and bring up senior Ted Blackman.
On a 1-2 count, Blackman knocked a hard grounder up the middle that Shaban corralled at second base, but he committed the Dukes’ third error of the inning on an errant throw trying to start the double play. Just like that, two runs scored and it was Coastal celebrating after all.
“That would have been a heartbreaker for us because we’ve got a young team,” Blackman said. “We bounced back, showing the young kids we bounced back, we’re playing nine innings and that’s how we play Coastal baseball.”
Lamando earned the win, while sophomore lefty Ben Smith took a tough-luck no decision after allowing two runs (one earned) and six hits over five innings. Cunningham allowed just one hit and the one walk while striking out two in his three-plus innings of work in an overall impressive debut.
Things had started much smoother for Coastal (2-0) on Sunday as it scored six runs over the first two innings to seize an early advantage. Sophomore catcher Will Remillard finished 2-for-4 with 3 RBIs, including a two-run double he was credited with on a groundball that deflected off the shortstop’s glove in the hole. Sophomore shortstop Brian Pruett also had a two-run double, smoking one down the line to help build that seemingly comfortable early lead well before all the ninth-inning dramatics.
In the end, all that mattered was the final result, though.
“We got the win,” Cunningham said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we got it. ... That’s huge morale for the team, especially early in the season knowing that we can do that and get it done.”
To make up for its Saturday rainout, Coastal has scheduled a game Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 in Baseball America’s preseason poll. Redshirt-freshman right-hander Tyler Poole will make his collegiate debut on the mound for the Chants in that game.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.