After Coastal Carolina scored 43 runs in a three-game series at Liberty earlier this month, and after the Flames scored 11 the day before to reach this position, the teams’ Big South championship showdown Saturday involved all of one run.
And plenty of tension in the final inning.
Liberty had runners on first and second with one out in the top of the ninth when senior closer Mike Morrison induced a ground ball to first that started a game-ending double play and a celebratory dogpile as the top-seeded Chanticleers held on for a 1-0 win over seventh-seeded Liberty at Lexington County Baseball Stadium for the program’s first Big South tournament title since 2012.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. The way we battled today ... ,” first baseman Tyler Chadwick said. “Like I said, we sat there the last [regular-season] game, after the Campbell game and said, ‘We’re going to win this thing with pitching and defense.’ And look at that. We won 1-0. We got a great start out of [Jason] Bilous and Mike came in and shut the door and we just played great defense all day. ... This is just an unbelievable feeling. I’m just so proud of everyone.”
I wish it would have been like one of the [blowouts] when we went up there, a little bit more enjoyable at least until the very end. But no, I was proud.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
Morrison, who earned the win for the Chants on Tuesday and the save Wednesday, went 3 2/3 scoreless innings for his eighth save of the season Saturday and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
In all, he threw six high-pressure innings out of the bullpen this week without allowing an earned run, and that final frame was a fitting moment for a pitcher who has bailed the team out of such situations all season long.
Predictably, though, he passed the credit around to his teammates.
“We had a bunch of guys play really well. I only had to get a couple outs. Jason Bilous went out there and got us  outs today ...,” Morrison said before rattling off a list of players who left their mark this week.
Bilous, a freshman right-hander who has come on down the stretch this season, had given the Chants (44-15) 5 1/3 scoreless innings while allowing only two hits and striking out five in his best outing yet.
Junior shortstop Michael Paez, meanwhile, gave the team the only run it would need with a home run – his 14th of the season – in the third inning.
“It just proves that defense and pitching win games and every at-bat matters,” Paez said. “I never thought the third inning would decide the game, but it does show that every at-bat matters and defense and pitching is what wins games.”
It was for the Chants on Saturday, at least.
Bilous had thrown four perfect innings before Dalton Britt singled up the middle to lead off the fifth for Liberty’s first hit. After a sacrifice bunt moved him to second Payton Scarbrough followed with a single, but senior left fielder Anthony Marks threw Britt out at the plate to preserve the 1-0 lead at that time.
Morrison would take over with a runner on first and one out in the sixth and quickly got the Chants out of that inning as well, with everything ultimately leading up to that top of the ninth.
The Flames (31-28) didn’t threaten again until that final frame, but it seemed only appropriate that what could be the last meeting for a long time between these rivals would involve some late dramatics.
Morrison actually started that final inning by freezing D.J. Artis with a called third strike, but Will Shepherd then singled up the middle and Andrew Yacyk walked on a 3-2 pitch. That brought pitching coach Drew Thomas to the mound, but there was no question the Chants were going to stick with their star closer regardless.
“The bottom line, if I’m going to lose I’m going to lose with him. I feel that way,” coach Gary Gilmore would say later. “The kid’s just been incredible and you just roll with him. I wasn’t worried about getting beat. If they get a hit, they get a hit, but I wasn’t worried about him giving up multiple runs.”
Next up was Britt – Liberty’s clean-up hitter – and he smacked a grounder to first. Chadwick fielded it cleanly, fired to second and Morrison caught the return throw back to first for the final out.
“Coach Thomas was just like, ‘You’re fine, keep executing pitches.’ That guy hit a ground ball to first, Chaddy made a heck of a play, Paez threw a strike back to me and I thought I was about to drop it, but we made the catch and had a good time out there. It was special,” Morrison said.
Morrison, who was a standout at nearby Gilbert High School less than 10 miles from the ballpark, then got the celebration started with Chadwick as the rest of the Chants came streaming out of the dugout.
“It might have jumped the state championship in high school. I know my buddies are going to dog me for saying that, but with this group of guys, and with that being Chadwick right there – that hug with Tyler Chadwick was very special to me,” he said. “I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life. That kid’s probably one of my best friends in the entire world, and it was very, very special.”
Interestingly, that throw to second to start a double play is one Chadwick has struggled with throughout his career, but not Saturday. Not with everything at stake for the Chants in this one.
“Seeing as how in four years he’s never made that throw accurately, I was almost screaming, ‘Go to first!’ But he hit him square in the chest with it,” Gilmore said. “You’ll have to ask him because I don’t think he’s ever done it. It’s kind of a running joke among the team because normally it’s at our feet, left or right. He caught it and he was 1,000-percent committed to that throw. There was not hesitation. It was a very good play for him.”
Said Chadwick: “I was not throwing that in the dirt. I was trying to get that dog pile.”
With the Chants moving to the Sun Belt conference next season, they officially leave the Big South on top with their 14th conference tournament championship. It was also their 10th straight win and 13th in their last 14 games.
Now they’ll wait to learn if they’ve done enough to earn the right to host in the NCAA regionals next week.
“It’s so special, especially for the seniors that haven’t won one,” Paez said. “I haven’t won [one], I’m a junior now. It means more than anything.”