It doesn’t take long for Coastal Carolina head baseball coach Gary Gilmore to decide on a starting lineup these days.
His options are incredibly limited.
Gilmore knew his team was going to be thin in the field and at the plate this season because of the loss to graduation and the Major League Baseball draft of numerous position players off last year’s national championship team.
A couple injuries now have the Chanticleers essentially down to two bench players per game – backup catcher Kyle Skeels and catcher/designated hitter Peyton Isaacson – at this week’s Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championship and the remainder of the postseason unless they turn to a player with one hit or less on the season.
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The lack of depth resulted in reliever Will Latcham batting in the eighth inning in the regular season finale Saturday because Isaacson was used as a late pinch runner for Billy Cooke after Cooke was hit in the helmet by a pitch, and Gilmore wanted to keep a position player on the bench just in case.
“We’re in that precarious position of one injury of any type creates massive issues for us because I’ve maybe got to take an outfielder and make him an infielder,” Gilmore said. “I have no extra infielders so we’ve got pitchers taking [batting practice] and shagging balls. That’s where we’re at. You can’t have but so many guys go down without feeling the pain of it.”
Sophomore second baseman Cameron Pearcey was lost for the season early in the year, and outfielder Dalton Ewing is likely out for the rest of the season. He fractured a hand when he was hit by a pitch and is expected to be in a cast for another two weeks. Luckily, the Chants got Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Cory Wood back in the starting lineup for the final six games after he missed 10 games with an injury.
Sophomore Kieton Rivers and junior Josh Crump have stepped into starting roles in the outfield. Rivers has started the past 23 games, batting .358 in his last 22, and Crump of Rock Hill is batting just .230 but has 17 walks in 79 plate appearances and a .392 on-base percentage. He scored two runs in the season finale against Appalachian State despite going 0-for-2.
“It’s good to see guys who at the beginning of the season weren’t really going to play are now in the mix,” pitcher Zack Hopeck said. “I honestly feel everybody on our bench now has got some experience underneath their belt and we’re ready to take on the postseason now.”
On the bright side, Gilmore considered the Chants to be in a similar position last year once Seth Lancaster went down with an injury in the postseason.
“In all honesty when you look at us at this time last year, we had guys in the dugout, but there was no one to replace [several players],” Gilmore said. “I maybe could have found a body, but I couldn’t replace them. We would have been a dysfunctional team.”
Despite playing a full season in the Sun Belt Conference, the Chants could still experience a couple firsts in Sun Belt competition this week.
Because the Chants hosted Georgia Southern in their only series in the regular season, they did not play at conference tournament site J.I. Clements Stadium.
In addition, the lone conference team CCU didn’t play in the regular season was Little Rock, the No. 9 seed in the tournament that played No. 8 Texas State on Thursday night.
With No. 7 Arkansas State’s win in the tournament opener Thursday afternoon, the top-seeded Chants will be facing the winner of the late game, which will be the worst remaining seed.
Bullpen takes shape
Junior late innings reliever Bobby Holmes has been ruled out for the remainder of the season with a strained elbow ligament.
Holmes, who was instrumental in CCU reaching and winning the College World Series last season, had been impressive before the injury, going 3-0 in his last five appearances with a save and 0.81 earned-run average.
Holmes is the only pitcher on the staff who isn’t healthy, however, and the bullpen has performed well down the stretch to give Gilmore confidence in all of his relievers.
“I think there are a lot of positives to build on at this point,” Gilmore said. “Our pitching staff down the stretch has been absolutely fantastic.”
The Chants went a stretch of 28 2/3 innings without allowing a run in conference play over the final eight days of the regular season, stretching four games against opponents Texas-Arlington and Appalachian State.
Relievers available to follow starters Alex Cunningham, Andrew Beckwith and Zack Hopeck, or spot start, include freshman lefty Anthony Veneziano, sophomore righty Jason Bilous, sophomore lefty Austin Kitchen, senior righty Cole Schaefer and junior righty Will Latcham.
Veneziano and Bilous have started a combined 18 games this year and will be available for long relief. “I feel a lot better having Veneziano and Bilous able to do some things that two months ago I’m not sure they were really capable of doing,” Gilmore said.
In his last outing, Bilous gave up a go-ahead grand slam in a loss to Clemson on May 16 but actually earned more trust from Gilmore in the outing. He struck out seven Tigers in three innings.
“To see him compete in that situation, I mean he was flat out dominant for about 2 1/2 innings,” Gilmore said. “I mean they didn’t have a chance, and that’s a pretty good offensive team. He’s been that piece of our puzzle where we’ve desperately needed to see him be the guy he was [against Clemson] way more often during the year. If he can be that guy down the stretch to give us another real dude out there, to help make up for the loss of Bobby at this point, it would be real big.”
Latcham will likely be the team’s closer in the postseason. He missed 25 of CCU’s first 35 games with shoulder pain but has quickly returned to form, pitching in eight of CCU’s final 20 games and going 3-0 with two saves, a 1.04 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings. He threw four innings to close out the season finale Saturday against Appalachian State, allowing a run on two hits with four strikeouts.
“That’s the longest most extended outing we’ve asked him to incur and it was good to see him be able to do that,” Gilmore said.
Cunningham believes Holmes sparked the bullpen to its improved performance over the final month of the season, which has helped the Chants win 12 of their last 14 games.
“We really had a chip on our shoulder these past four weekends and we kind of put it all together,” Cunningham said. “At the beginning we struggled for a little bit, especially in the back end of the bullpen. We made some bullpen changes … and when it actually clicked was when Bobby clicked, when Bobby started throwing the way Bobby throws everyone else got behind him.
“It’s tough to win ballgames when you’re winning, and in the seventh, eighth and ninth you somehow fall apart. So the back end of the bullpen coming together really solidified our pitching staff.”
Sun Belt schedule
Game 3 - 9 a.m. - No. 6 Troy vs. No. 3 South Alabama
Game 4 - 12:30 p.m. - No. 7 Arkansas State vs. No. 2 Texas-Arlington
Game 5 - 4 p.m. - Little Rock-Texas State winner vs. No. 1 Coastal Carolina
Game 6 - 7:30 p.m. - No. 5 Georgia Southern vs. No. 4 Louisiana-Lafayette
Game 7 - 3 p.m. - Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner
Game 8 - 6:30 p.m. - Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner
Championship - 1 p.m. - Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner