Junior catcher Matt Beaird is usually relied upon to provide the little things in the Coastal Carolina offense, hence his 17 sacrifice bunts that have him in the top five nationally in that category.
Two of those came in his first two trips to the plate Saturday afternoon against Appalachian State at Springs Brooks Stadium.
But later Saturday, he also provided the big blow that helped the Chanticleers win the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that begins Tuesday at J.I. Clements Stadium in Statesboro, Ga.
With the division title on the line and the Chants clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, Beaird provided two insurance runs with a rare display of power, hitting a two-run homer over the right-center field wall to give CCU a 4-1 lead in an eventual 6-2 win.
It was Beaird’s third home run of the season, and third of his CCU career covering 131 games played.
“It’s all about team around here. … Whatever helps the team out,” Beaird said.
Coastal finished the regular season 37-18-1 overall and 22-7-1 in the Sun Belt in its first year in the conference after winning seven of the past 10 Big South Conference regular season and conference tournament championships.
“It really helps us with our at-large bid in case we don’t win the tournament,” Beaird said. “I think our first goal from the beginning of the season was to come out and win the Sun Belt in our first year and it was a big win today.
“We just have to keep it going and believe in each other.”
The defending national champions can earn an automatic NCAA regional berth with a Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship, and are much better positioned to earn an at-large berth than they were four weeks ago.
The Chants closed the season winning 12 of their final 14 games, and won their final 11 Sun Belt games.
“To finish on the note that we did says a lot about this group of guys,” CCU head coach Gary Gilmore said. “We’ve incurred numerous injuries, we’ve had patchwork this and that. … It’s not always the prettiest thing in the world but we find ways to win, and that’s kind of how we’ve been successful over the years for the most part.”
The Chants began the three-game series with Appalachian State a half-game behind South Alabama for the best record in the division and conference, and earned the top seed with its sweep of the Mountaineers and South Alabama’s loss Thursday to Troy.
Appalachian State (19-36, 8-22) finished last in the East Division and was eliminated from conference tournament consideration following its loss Friday.
The Chants allowed just four runs in the three-game series, led by starting pitchers Alex Cunningham, Andrew Beckwith and junior Zack Hopeck, who allowed one run on four hits with five strikeouts in five innings Saturday to improve to 5-2 on the season.
“We’ve just been really executing all of our pitches,” Hopeck said. “… I think we are gaining confidence. Toward the end of our conference play everybody has been stepping up and it’s been huge throughout the whole group.”
Will Latcham pitched the final four innings, allowing a run on two hits with four strikeouts.
Hopeck allowed the game’s first two batters to reach on a single by Jason Curtis and double down the left field line by Matt Vernon but got out of the first inning unscathed with a pop up in foul territory, strikeout and ground out.
The Chants got a pair of singles to open the bottom of the first by Billy Cooke and Jordan Gore, but Cooke was caught stealing and they were unable to advance a runner past first base.
Vernon gave the Mountaineers a 1-0 lead with a solo home run in the top of the third and the Chants tied the game in the bottom of the third on a walk by Josh Crump, sacrifice bunt by Beaird and RBI bloop single into shallow right field by Cooke.
The Chants manufactured a go-ahead run in the fifth inning when Crump walked, was again sacrificed to second by Beaird, advanced to third on an infield hit by Cooke and scored on a squeeze bunt by Gore.
Beaird began his at-bat in the seventh in position for another possible sacrifice, with Cory Wood on first base and one out. But Wood stole second, freeing Beaird to swing for the fences.
The Chants added two more runs in the seventh following Beaird’s homer to take a 6-1 lead. Cooke was hit in the helmet by a pitch and left the game after going 3-for-3 to increase his season average to .360, Kevin Woodall Jr. singled with two outs, Wood Myers plated pinch runner Peyton Isaacson with a single and Kieton Rivers plated Woodall with a single.
“I was very happy for Matty Beaird but I was more happy for us,” Gilmore said. “I think that swing Beaird put on the ball, it became a different group of guys in the batter’s box after that. I thought we actually started to get our breathing routines in, do some of the things that allow us to relax and just play, and we were able to put a four-spot on them in that inning and put the game away for the most part.”
The Chants will begin the double-elimination Sun Belt tournament Wednesday, and will learn their opponent on Tuesday. The teams seeded seventh through 10th face elimination games Tuesday, and the Chants will face the worst remaining seed.