It’s still early, way early in the college baseball season, but there seems to be something undeniably fun about this Coastal Carolina team, something that should give fans and supporters of the program encouragement that the Chanticleers are moving in the right direction again.
On Friday, it was junior left fielder Connor Owings throwing out a runner at the plate to keep the game tied in the top of the 13th inning and then sophomore designated hitter G.K. Young crushing the first pitch in the bottom of the inning for a walk-off home run down the right field line.
Coastal Carolina had taken a two-run lead into the ninth before allowing West Virginia to tie it up and force extra innings, but the alternate ending might do even more for the Chanticleers’ collective confidence as they finished off a 4-3 win before a crowd of 1,344 at Springs Brooks Stadium.
“That was probably the most emotional game I’ve had since I’ve been here in my three years,” Owings said afterward.
Said Young, the former Conway High School standout who picked a prime time for his first home run of the season, off Mountaineers reliever Conner Dotson: “I faced the kid already one time and he didn’t throw anything but fastballs, so going up there I just sat fastball and luckily I got it in where I was looking and I got it out. It’s probably the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. It’s the most exciting game I’ve ever played in in my whole life.”
It was the fourth straight win for the Chants (6-2), who needed 14 games to reach six wins last season.
Obscured by the dramatic final result was another strong performance from sophomore right-hander Alex Cunningham, who took a shutout into the ninth inning before allowing leadoff singles to West Virginia’s Justin Fox and Jackson Cramer. He was pulled from the game at that point and junior reliever Mike Morrison came in and walked Brad Johnson to load the bases.
The Mountaineers (3-5) pushed one run across on a fielder’s choice groundout by Kyle Davis and tied the game on a sacrifice fly to centerfield by Shaun Corso. Morrison then got out of the jam with a nice play on a ball back to the mound to strand runners on second and third.
West Virginia took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 12th inning after Shaun Wood led off with a walk, stole second and scored on an RBI single by Taylor Munden.
In the bottom of the 12th, Chants freshman pinch-hitter Al Molina reached on an error by the second baseman to start the inning and took second on a sac bunt by sophomore Michael Paez. Junior Anthony Marks then drove an RBI single to center to tie the game again while building the suspense.
The Mountaineers threatened once more in the top of the 13th when KC Huth led off with a walk and two batters later Davis singled to right. After a passed ball advanced the runners to second and third, Corso was intentionally walked to load the bases. Wood then hit a fly ball to left.
Owings had just been moved from second base to left at the start of the inning and he settled under the high fly ball before firing a perfect throw in the air to junior catcher Casey Schroeder, who easily applied the tag at the plate for the final out, keeping the game tied still.
“When I was running up to catch it I could hear Marks telling me that he was tagging and to throw him out,” Owings said. “Honestly I really just tried to give Casey a ball he could handle because I knew the kid wasn’t the best runner. Luckily it worked out for us. ... I had been struggling a little bit at the plate, hadn’t been really helping us to win, so my job as a player on this team is to do anything to help us to win. If I’m not doing it at the plate, hopefully I can do it with my defense and I was able to do that.”
And on the first pitch in the bottom of the inning, Young ended the game.
“I just told a good friend of mine, ‘People wonder why a 57-year-old guy loses all his hair? That was about four hours worth of it right there,’” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “We did some good things, but there’s a lot of things we have to get better at. ... We made just enough plays to put ourselves in a position to allow G.K. to put a swing on a ball. I tip my hat to him. I think he struck out two or three times, but he hit a couple balls really hard and that’s what that kid does for our lineup. He gives us that one guy that if you get him to the plate he has a chance to hit a home run every time he’s up there.”
Young finished 3-for-6 with two runs and that game-winning RBI, Marks was 2-for-6 with an RBI, junior first baseman Tyler Chadwick went 2-for-3, freshman centerfielder Josh Crump was 1-for-4 with the Chants’ other RBI and Owings reached base for the 30th straight game while drawing two walks. Paez also extended his streak to 20 straight games reaching base as he also drew a walk.
On the mound, Cunningham allowed two earned runs, five hits and one walk while reaching career highs with seven strikeouts and 8 innings pitched. Sophomore Andrew Beckwith earned the win, though, despite allowing one hit and two walks in his one inning of relief.
Asked what the win showed about these Chants, Young and Owings were in agreement.
“We don’t get down, we don’t get scared, we battle back. We’re grinders,” Young said.
Owings quickly chimed in, “We’re grinders. That’s it right there. That’s what we want to be. We want to be grinders every day.”
So far so good for a program looking to bounce back after finishing 24-33 last season while missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.
“The confidence factor is huge, to grow together. Last year there’s no shot we can do this. And I’m not really sure two years ago we were a team that could be resilient enough to hang in there and make plays defensively, not panic when we’re down one and at the end of the day someone has to step up and do things like G.K. did,” Gilmore said. “... Hopefully with confidence and if we can continue to grow as a team over the course of the year, maybe by the end we’ll have a chance to be pretty good.”