Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore had a decision to make Friday: throw College World Series star Andrew Beckwith or season-long ace Alex Cunningham in the Chanticleers’ opening game of the Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championship.
Things went so poorly he ended up using both pitchers, and the defending national champions now hope they have done enough in the regular season to garner an at-large berth into an NCAA regional.
Beckwith started and was both wild and hit hard, the Chants played poorly behind him and Texas State knocked the top seed from the tournament with a 7-5 win at J.I. Clements Stadium.
Rain pushed the start of the tournament back two days and resulted in a format change from double elimination to single elimination, and the Chants paid the price with a one-game exit to eighth-seeded Texas State (29-29), which now has a 15-17 record in Sun Belt games.
Coastal (37-19-1) won the conference’s East Division with a league-best 22-7-1 record that included 11 consecutive conference wins to close the regular season. It hopes for its third at-large berth into the NCAA tournament field of 64 teams in the past five years and fourth since 2005. A committee will select at-large teams Monday.
CCU has made the NCAA tournament 14 of the past 16 years.
“I’m not counting on anything,” Gilmore said. “A lot of it will depend on what happens [Friday] night and what happens the rest of this weekend. I think it will be hard to get three teams out of this league in, personally. All of it has to play out just right. We came in here wanting to control our own fate. I’m assuming there’s a real good chance that doesn’t happen. Maybe we get lucky.”
Beckwith gave up eight hits and six runs (five earned) while walking two and hitting two batters in 3 2/3 innings, and the Chants made three errors in the first two innings while falling behind 4-0 and later 7-3.
“It was very frustrating the way things turned out for [Beckwith],” Gilmore said. “He’s been such a tremendous competitor over his career, and to end his career at Coastal on that outing to be honest with you was very sad to watch. It kind of broke my heart to see him come off the field in that manner because that kid won a national championship for us. He didn’t do it all by himself but he darn near did. He did a lot of it.”
Gilmore replaced Beckwith with Cunningham out of desperation with CCU trailing by three and the bases loaded in the fourth. Cunningham enticed a pop up in foul territory to get out of the inning, but the Chants were never able to catch up to the Bobcats.
An error and an overturned call were largely responsible for a four-run second inning for Texas State that put the Chanticleers in an early hole.
The Bobcats started the second with a walk and double off the center field wall by Ryan Newman before Beckwith recorded a strikeout. The Chants appeared to get a second out while allowing a run when shortstop Jordan Gore fielded a chopper behind the bag and threw across his body to retire Jacob Almendarez on a stretch up the baseline by first baseman Kevin Woodall Jr.
First base umpire Brian Martin pointed to the bag while calling Almendarez out, but Texas State coaches argued Woodall’s foot was off the bag and the call was reversed following an umpire conference, leaving runners at first and third with one out. Television replays were inconclusive but did not appear to show space between Woodall’s foot and the bag.
“I thought that was why we had four umpires, so that guy is right there [at first base],” Gilmore said. “But for some reason the other two guys that are 150 feet away said they saw it better and that he was off the bag. It’s hard to argue. . . . That’s kind of how our day went.”
A pop up for the second out would have ended the inning, but a double to the left-center gap by Jonathan Ortega plated two runs, and a dropped pop up by Woodall allowed another run to score.
We had flat out all but handed them four runs. It’s one of those things that happens once every so many seasons you drop that kind of pop up.
CCU head coach Gary Gilmore
Coastal answered with two runs in the bottom of the second on a leadoff Wood Myers single, two-out walk by Cory Wood and two-run double by Josh Crump into left-center field.
The Chants pulled within a run in the third inning on a double by Gore down the left field line and sharp two-out RBI single by Myers off pitcher Connor Reich.
But the Bobcats added two runs in the fourth inning with three consecutive singles to begin the inning, a run-scoring double play, two hit batters and a walk that plated a run and chased Beckwith.
“After we closed it to 4-3, giving up those two in the fourth inning, those were the two that kind of broke your back,” Gilmore said.
A two-out single and double off Cunningham gave Texas State a 7-3 lead in the fifth.
Seth Lancaster pulled the Chants within two runs on a two-run blast in the sixth that was just the second ball this season to clear Clements Stadium’s 25-foot wall in right field.
The Chants threatened in the ninth, but another disputed call diminished the threat.
Billy Cooke was hit by a pitch with one out in the ninth inning, but home plate umpire Mike Grace apparently deemed that Cooke leaned into a pitch and called Cooke back from first base. Cooke eventually struck out looking. “I was told he could have caught it as a strike, so I don’t know,” Gilmore said. “How do I argue that? I have no earthly idea.”
Gore singled through the shortstop hole with two outs and Woodall walked to bring up Myers, who flied out to center field, possibly ending the Chants’ season.
“I would hope somehow winning the regular season means something, but I don’t know,” Gilmore said. “I would love to get a second life and get a chance to get in the thing. … I’m hoping that enough dominoes fall in enough spots that maybe we’ve done enough.”
The Chants hadn’t played since last Saturday afternoon and looked rusty Friday with the three early errors.
“I thought we were playing really good and there’s not doubt in my mind the time off didn’t do us good,” Gilmore said. “. . . But all the teams were inactive. There are no excuses. We got beat, simple as that. It’s baseball and we can’t control our fate now. It’s very frustrating.”
Though Cunningham has been the Chants’ No. 1 starter all season, both he and Beckwith pitched well late in the season. Beckwith (8-1, 4.00 ERA entering the game) had won his last eight decisions and allowed just one earned run in his past two outings, while Cunningham (7-2, 2.68) struck out 14 and allowed just two hits in his last outing.
“I think they’re interchangeable guys,” Gilmore said. “… That was one of the worst outings he’s had in the history of his four-year career here. How do you expect that to come about today? I had no inclination. If I knew he would have done that then obviously we would have done something different. We just thought he was a good match-up for them and if we could win it would give us Cunningham against one of those next two teams and have a chance to win the first two games.”
Beckwith got out of a jam the first inning that was caused by his defense. Texas State’s first two batters reached base on consecutive errors by Gore on ground balls, and the Bobcats loaded the bases on a line drive single by Theodore Hoffman that followed a fly out.
Beckwith got out of the inning on a double play started by Woodall and ended by Beckwith covering first base.
Texas State took two out of three from the Chants in CCU’s first Sun Belt series in mid-March and ended the season taking two of three from West Division champion Texas-Arlington before defeating Little Rock 3-2 in its tournament opener Thursday night.
The Bobcats threw Nicholas Fraze (5-2, 4.59), who became the No. 1 starter late in the season, in Thursday’s win. Reich (2-5, 5.58), who began the season as the No. 1 starter, was moved to the bullpen after struggling and was later inserted back into the rotation, was left to face the Chants. He went six-plus innings, allowing five runs on eight hits and five walks while throwing 103 pitches before being relieved by lefty Anthony Pagano, who allowed just one hit in the final three innings.
“We found a way to win, and this time of year that’s all you’re trying to do, however it might be,” Texas State coach Ty Harrington said. “We took advantage of some opportunities that came our way, also.”
Sun Belt schedule
Game 1 - No. 7 Arkansas State 21, No. 10 Georgia State 4
Game 2 - No. 8 Texas State 3, No. 9 Little Rock 2
Game 3 - No. 3 South Alabama 9, No. 6 Troy 1
Game 4 - Arkansas State 4, No. 2 Texas-Arlington 2
Game 5 - Texas State 7, No. 1 Coastal Carolina 5
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