Prior to taking the field for practice on the eve of the NCAA Regionals at Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park, Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore delivered some unexpected news.
Sophomore right-hander Alex Cunningham, the team’s ace for the first half of the season before missing most of the last month and a half with tendinitis in his upper forearm, is likely to start on the mound for the No. 2-seeded Chanticleers on Friday against No. 3 California.
“I think we’ve got a shot to have him tomorrow. I’m not 100 percent sure with it, but I feel pretty good about it,” Gilmore said. “… We’re going to lean a little bit on Cunningham. If [he] proves to not be able to go, then [freshman lefty Shane] Sawczak will start.”
The Chants (38-19) open the four-team double-elimination regional against the No. 25-ranked Golden Bears (34-19).
Coastal Carolina is making its 14th overall NCAA Regionals appearance and 13th under Gilmore. The Chants are back in the 64-team NCAA tournament field after a year away.
Cunningham, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched since throwing 1 2/3 innings of relief against Liberty on May 9 before reaggravating the discomfort in his arm. And before that brief appearance, he hadn’t thrown in a game since April 17.
For much of the season, though, he had been the team’s top starting pitcher and boasts a 6-0 record and 2.56 earned-run average over 59 2/3 innings.
“If we can get Alex back on the mound tomorrow someway or another, that will be a huge shot in our arm – if nothing else, these kids believe so much in him,” Gilmore said.
Junior catcher Casey Schroeder is improving from the rib/back injury that kept him out of the Big South championship game last Saturday, said Gilmore, but he wasn’t ready to say for sure that the slugger will be in the lineup Friday.
“We hope so,” Gilmore said when asked if Schroeder would play in the opener. “He’s going to try to give it a go today and kind of see where he’s at. It may ultimately be a game-time decision. If we can stay here long enough, I think he’ll be able to play at some point in time; I just don’t know about [Friday] 100 percent.”
Schroeder leads the Chants with 13 home runs this season while starting 53 games.
“He’s one of the toughest kids on this team, one of the toughest kids I’ve coached, so I know if there’s anybody that can make it go and make it work and help us, it will be him,” Gilmore said.
If he can’t go, Coastal Carolina will likely turn back to freshman Matt Beaird, who is hitting .154 in 19 games and four starts. He was 1-for-3 with an RBI single in the Big South title game.
In other injury news, Gilmore wasn’t as optimistic about senior lefty Austin Kerr (8-1, 3.36 ERA) being able to contribute this weekend. Kerr has said he’ll undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow after the season, but he was hoping to pitch through the injury this week.
Jefferies on the mound for Cal
California’s pitching decision, on the other hand, was not so surprising.
Sophomore right-hander Daulton Jefferies will take the mound for the Bears on Friday, coach David Esquer confirmed.
Jefferies, who throws mid 90s with his fastball, has been the Bears’ No. 1 starter all season and is 5-5 with a 3.12 ERA and a 67-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 72 innings.
“He’s a quality arm, he’s going to be highly regarded and touted by professional baseball coming out his junior season,” Esquer said. “He’s been all the way from 92 to 94, maybe touched 95, maybe here at the end of the season more 91-93. He relies on fastball command. He has some secondary pitches, [and] his change-up and his curveball have to be of some use for him to be effective.”
Similar story line
Just like Coastal Carolina’s NCAA Regionals return has been a big deal for the program after a rough 2014 season, this is Cal’s first regionals berth since reaching the College World Series in 2011.
Overall, its the program’s 13th NCAA postseason appearance.
“It’s been a little bit of a road and a journey to get back to the playoffs,” Esquer said. “And we would have liked to be here sooner, but it was just kind of a process it took our program to go through.”
Junior outfielder Devin Pearson said the team didn’t play with any pressure this season because of how the outside expectations had dropped.
“Honestly we didn’t feel much pressure because no one really had expectations for us,” he said. “We had more expectations for ourselves and we wanted to be that team, and we kind of played loose and brought the best out of each other to get here. But it’s really exciting to finally be here, and it means a lot – especially to our seniors.”
The teams had one common opponent this season in Campbell. The Bears won two of three games against the Fighting Camels earlier this month in Buies Creek, N.C., while Coastal Carolina lost two of three against them to close the regular season.
As for scouting the Chants, Esquer said the Bears will be more reliant on in-game adjustments.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in our pitching coach Mike Neu, who has been around a lot – his ability to read hitters in the batter’s box,” he said. “I think we’re going to pitch to Daulton’s strengths early because we won’t know a lot about them, but I think one time through the lineup Mike usually does a great job of getting a plan together of how to attack hitters. He’s been doing it all year long.”
As for the Bears’ lineup, Pearson leads the team with a .350 batting average while senior Chris Paul is batting .326 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs and sophomore Lucas Erceg is the top power threat with a .316 average, 11 homers and 40 RBIs.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.
NCAA Baseball Regionals
Who | No. 2-seeded Coastal Carolina vs. No. 3 California
Where | Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park, College Station, Texas
When | 1 p.m. EST Friday
What | Chants and Golden Bears are part of four-team double-elimination regional bracket along with host Texas A&M and No. 4 seed Texas Southern.
TV/Online | ESPN3.com
Radio | WSEA-FM 100.3