With the Big South’s two best teams from the regular season advancing to the conference championship game Saturday, Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore had predicted a very competitive contest with Radford.
And that might still have been an understatement.
After the No. 2-seeded Chanticleers built a three-run lead in the fourth inning, the top-seeded Highlanders eventually whittled their deficit away to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth and set the stage for a dramatic final inning.
Radford put runners on first and second with no outs in the bottom of the ninth before junior reliever Mike Morrison picked up back-to-back strikeouts as the drama mounted, but Hunter Higgerson ended it with a walk-off RBI single to left field to send the top-seeded Highlanders to a 5-4 win at Gardner-Webb’s John Henry Moss Stadium.
With that, Radford (43-14) earned its 15th straight win and its first ever Big South tournament championship while denying the Chants (38-19) in their bid for the program’s 14th conference tournament title.
“I thought it was a very good ballgame. It’s what you expect out of a 1 and a 2 [seed] when you come to tournament time,” Coastal Carolina junior first baseman Tyler Chadwick said. “It just [hurts] to come out on the losing end of it, but it was a good ballgame.”
Radford clinches the Big South’s automatic bid into the NCAA Regionals next week while Coastal Carolina must now wait until the live NCAA tournament selection show Monday at noon on ESPNU to confirm if it is definitely back in the 64-team field after a year away.
That remains the Chants’ hope and expectation.
“Hopefully we get a chance to play somewhere,” Gilmore said simply.
Meanwhile, the fans who trekked to Boiling Springs for the conclusion of the Big South tournament Saturday were treated to an intense back-and-forth finale.
After Coastal Carolina built a 4-1 lead in the top of the fourth inning, Radford quickly trimmed its deficit with two runs in the bottom of the fifth to make it 4-3.
And the tension really started to mount in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Josh Reavis led off with a single up the middle for Radford, Patrick Marshall followed with an infield single to short and Higgerson moved the runners over with a sac bunt. Gilmore visited the mound and instructed Morrison to intentionally walk Danny Hrbek at that point to load the bases and set up a pivotal at-bat for Aaron Scoville.
After working the count full, Scoville hit a chopper toward sophomore third baseman Jack Curtis that didn’t allow any opportunity for a play at the plate as the Highlanders tied it at 4-4. Curtis also misfired on his throw to first, keeping the bases loaded with one out.
Morrison limited the damage to just that one run, though, while bouncing back to strike out Brad Keen and Trevor Riggs in succession to end the inning.
But the Highlanders were right back it in the bottom of the ninth.
Chris Coia led off with an infield single to short and Shane Johnsonbaugh followed with a bloop single to right. Again Morrison rallied, striking out Reavis on a foul bunt attempt with two strikes and then battling back from a 3-0 count to freeze Marshall on a called third strike, but it wouldn’t be enough.
Coia stole third without a throw and Higgerson connected on a 2-2 pitch to send a soft liner to left for the walk-off game-winner.
“I thought we were going to get out of the jam, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” freshman catcher Matt Beaird said.
Said Morrison: “It was a curveball. It was supposed to be [to] the five spot, which is off the plate, and I just hung it.”
Coastal Carolina had coasted to the championship game with little obstruction while winning its first three games of the tournament by a combined 27-3 margin before encountering adversity from the onset Saturday.
Before the championship game even started, the Chants announced a very late change to the starting lineup they had initially submitted, scratching junior catcher Casey Schroeder due to a rib injury that may now keep him out the rest of the season.
Without Schroeder, a mainstay behind the plate this season, Gilmore plugged in Beaird at catcher for just his fourth start of the season, moved junior Zach Remillard from first base to second base and inserted Chadwick, who was previously not in the lineup, in at first.
Radford then seized early control of the championship game.
In the bottom of the second inning, the Highlanders put runners on first and third with no outs against freshman right-hander Bobby Holmes and managed to come away with a 1-0 win on a sacrifice fly by Keen.
Meanwhile, the Chants had gone hitless through the first three innings against lefty Mitchell MacKeith.
That all changed in the fourth, though.
Junior Anthony Marks led off the inning with a single up the middle, sophomore Michael Paez reached on a perfect bunt single to the right side of the mound and junior Connor Owings worked a 3-2 walk to load the bases with no outs.
Remillard then delivered with an opposite field single past the first baseman to tie the game at 1-1.
It looked like that might be all the Chants would get as sophomore G.K. Young popped out in foul territory and Curtis flied out to shallow center to keep the bases loaded with two outs. But Chadwick came through with a pivotal at-bat, lacing a liner up the middle just past the diving glove of Coia at short to plate two runs and give Coastal Carolina a 3-1 lead.
Beaird, who hadn’t started a game since March 9 and had just three hits and two RBIs entering the game, followed with a bloop single to center to plate another run and make it 4-1.
The game was far from over at that point, though.
“It was nice to get the lead there and get a little breathing room and then Beaird got another hit, another run,” Chadwick said of his clutch hit. “We felt good at that point that we had a good chance to win the game. We just needed to get a few more good at-bats, play good defense, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully luck will turn our way in regionals.”
Ryan Meisinger (5-0) earned the win for Radford, throwing a scoreless ninth inning in relief. Reavis and Marshall were each 2-for-4 with an RBI for the Highlanders.
For the Chants, Chadwick finished 1-for-3 with two RBIs and Remillard and Beaird were each 1-for-3 with an RBI apiece. Morrison (2-3) took the loss, giving up five hits and two runs (one earned) while notching a career-high seven strikeouts over 3 2/3 innings.
Gilmore was most disappointed that the Chants managed only five hits – all in the fourth inning – after totaling 43 over the first three games of the week.
“It wasn’t a very good effort for us offensively. It just was what it was. We needed to be offensive and we just weren’t,” he said. “... You have to tip your hat to them. They beat us three times, they deserve to go wherever they go and whatever happens to us, happens to us.”
The Chants will find out Monday if their resurgent season – after a 24-33 finish last year – will get to continue.
“I hope so. I think we’ve done enough and proved enough to where we should be in the tournament,” Chadwick said. “You never know, though. You don’t like to leave it in other people’s hands, but I think we’ve done enough and proved enough this year we should be in the tournament hopefully.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.