A pair of wins over Troy this weekend may have spared the Coastal Carolina baseball team some unwanted pressure over the final three weeks of the season.
The defending NCAA national champions had dropped four of their past five games in the Sun Belt Conference, including a listless 4-0 defeat to Troy in the opener Friday of a three-game series.
But the Chanticleers rallied for a one-run victory Saturday and broke out the bats Sunday afternoon to take an 11-8 win at Springs Brooks Stadium that stabilized their place in the conference’s East Division standings.
Coastal Carolina (27-16-1) remains 1 1/2 games behind South Alabama in the division at 13-7-1 and just a half game ahead of third-place Georgia Southern. The Chants dropped fourth-place Troy (24-19) to 10-11 in the conference.
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“These last two wins were huge,” Coastal head coach Gary Gilmore said. “Where we are is where we’ve been for two months. We want to be a good team but we continually fail to make the next step forward to be a great team.”
The top six teams in the conference at the end of the regular season have byes into the second round of the conference tournament, and those outside the top six have to win a play-in game to continue their seasons.
“We keep hovering around. We’re right there still in a position if we make a solid run, to really put a whole lot of pressure on South Alabama . . . in our division for the No. 1 spot,” Gilmore said. “We continue to flounder around, and there are six, seven or eight decent teams in this league whose records are not far off of ours, and we could drop out of the top six in one weekend, one really bad weekend.”
The Chants could have fallen behind Troy if they were swept this weekend, and trailed by a run in the eighth inning Saturday before junior Seth Lancaster lined a two-out, two-run single on a full count to help lift the Chants to a one-run victory.
“For Seth to do that last night it gave us a little momentum coming into today and we rolled with it,” said junior first baseman Kevin Woodall Jr., of Georgetown, who had two doubles and two RBI on Sunday. “I think it was huge. We won another series and that’s what you try to do every weekend. Friday it didn’t work out for us and we had our backs against the wall Saturday and we knew we had to come out and battle.”
CCU has 12 games remaining, including nine in the conference and five at home. The Chants next six conference games are on the road at Louisiana-Monroe and Texas-Arlington over the next two weekends before closing out the regular season with a three-game series at home against Appalachian State from May 18-20.
“We feel like every single game we’re right there. We’re inches away from being a great team,” said junior outfielder Dalton Ewing, who had two hits and four RBI Sunday, including a two-run homer. “We have to keep grinding out these last few series and see what we can accomplish.”
The conference tournament follows the regular season in Statesboro, Ga., beginning May 23.
“We’re getting a taste for the first time in my 22 years of what it’s like to be in a good league where you have to play nine solid innings, there are no off days, every game all weekend long is a grind,” Gilmore said. “… We have had to grind every weekend.”
Despite his respect for the strength of the Sun Belt Conference, Gilmore still believes the Chants can be the class of the league in the end. “It isn’t about anyone else in this league,” Gilmore said. “I’ve told them this and I’ll continue to tell them this, I think we’re as good as anyone in this league. It’s just simply can we play at a top level long enough to win a conference tournament.
“Can we make a run here at the end to go into that tournament on a hot streak, on a run where we feel really good about ourselves. … When do we make that extended run where we walk tall and puff our chest out and feel really good about ourselves for eight or 10 games in a row. A championship team has to be able to do that.”
In Sunday’s series finale, CCU starter Zack Hopeck gave up a leadoff home run to Matt Sanders, but the Chants answered with three in the bottom of the first inning and got a home run out of the No. 9 spot in the order in the second inning when Kyle Skeels – who entered the game batting .158 – lined his third home run of the season over the left field fence.
Coastal roughed up five Troy pitchers, recording at least one earned run off each. The Chants jumped on starter Austin Crook for four runs in the first two innings and added three off lefty reliever Max Newton, the big blow being Ewing’s two-run homer, to take a 7-2 lead.
Though Troy cut the deficit to three runs with a pair of runs in the fifth, Coastal responded with four runs in an eighth inning that included Woodall’s two-run double to take an 11-4 lead.
Troy would eventually have the tying run come to the plate twice in the ninth after beginning the inning with six consecutive hits, including five off Austin Kitchen. Bobby Holmes gave up a single before enticing a fly ball and double play to end the game and record his third save.
“Thank goodness today we were offensive,” Gilmore said. “If you watched that game you know how important those four runs were in the bottom of the eighth for us. Otherwise, maybe we lose.”
Coastal was coming off a game Saturday in which it made five errors, and played a much cleaner and more alert game Sunday. Gilmore is still looking for consistency in all aspects of the game.
“I’ve coached 32 years, and it’s the most insane thing I’ve seen,” Gilmore said. “We have wonderful kids, great kids, a lot of talent. But our inability to not shoot ourselves in the foot continues, and every game is a new drama. We don’t hit on Friday. [Saturday] we don’t catch the ball. Today we give up 19 hits, and it’s a good team … but they were hitting 240-something. I don’t expect to give up 19 hits to that team or to any team in our league. Every day is something new. It wears you out.”
The Chants have final exams early this week before CCU’s class of 2017 graduation ceremony this upcoming weekend.