The Coastal Carolina baseball team spent the past three and a half months erasing the sting of a forgettable 2014 season by quickly thrusting the program back on the track it had spent so many years riding to seemingly perennial postseason berths.
But if the Chanticleers are going to extend their run any further this season, they’ve got some work to do now.
No. 3-seeded California got a shutdown pitching performance from hard-throwing ace right-hander Daulton Jefferies while holding No. 2 Coastal Carolina to just four hits on the way to finishing off a 9-3 win in the opening game of the four-team, double-elimination NCAA Regional at Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park.
The Chants (38-20) now move to the loser’s bracket and will play Saturday at 1 p.m. EST against No. 4 Texas Southern. The Golden Bears (35-19) will play No. 1 Texas A&M at 7 p.m. EST.
“I’m disappointed, for me personally, in how we competed today,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “We have to be a bunch of junkyard dogs or we’ll be on a plane home [Saturday] afternoon very early. When you have some of your better players not being able to pitch and play, then the other guys have to win on emotion. You have to really believe you can do it and get after it.
“The reason we missed all those fastballs is because that’s not who we were today. I’ve seen us hit fastballs like that and barrel them up over and over and over, and that’s not who we were today. That part I’m disappointed in personally.”
The Chants scored their first run Friday on a two-out solo home run from junior Tyler Chadwick in the second inning. But despite having their lead-off runner reach base in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, they didn’t cross home plate again until the final frame after it was much too late.
Jefferies (6-5) went seven innings, giving up three hits, three walks and one run while picking up five strikeouts to earn the win. The sophomore, who leaned on his low-to-mid 90s fastball, threw 115 pitches and departed with a 4-1 lead before the Bears added late insurance runs.
The Chants had their chances, though.
They had a prime opportunity to erase what was only a two-run deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning when freshman Josh Crump led off with a walk and took second on a wild pitch and sophomore Michael Paez followed later with a one-out walk. But Jefferies responded by freezing junior Connor Owings and sophomore G.K. Young on called third strikes to end the inning.
In the seventh, with the game still within reach at 4-1, junior Zach Remillard led off with a walk, but Jefferies picked up three quick outs to strand another runner.
“We knew coming into the game he was going to come at us with fastballs and he was going to be a one-pitch guy. Early on, that’s exactly what he was,” Chadwick said. “He did a good job of painting the ball away, but on the other hand we missed quite a few swings, quite a few barrels that we should have hit. But he did a good job locating his fastball. I just think we could have done a better job getting the barrel on the ball.”
Said Cal coach David Esquer: “I thought [Jefferies] did a great job even getting through the seventh inning. I really thought he just kind of gutted it out. The weather was warm, he was kind of on fumes a little bit, and I thought that showed a lot. I think it’s one of the best performances of his career here and really maybe kind of breaks through a wall for him as far as coming up with those big performances that you want your Friday night guy to come through with.”
Down five runs in the eighth inning, the Chants put runners on first and second with one out and again came up empty when reliever Erik Martinez got Owings to ground into an inning-ending double play.
And they were down eight by the time they finally scored again in the ninth on a one-out, bases-loaded walk by freshman pinch-hitter Kevin Woodall Jr. and an RBI groundout by Crump.
Meanwhile, although Gilmore had indicated Thursday that sophomore ace right-hander Alex Cunningham was likely ready to return from forearm tendinitis to start the regional opener, freshman lefty Shane Sawczak instead got the start.
And for four innings he was quite effective.
Sawczak used a nice pick-off move to negate the only runner he allowed in the first before running into trouble in the second.
Cal’s Chris Paul led off with a triple to right-center field off Owings’ diving glove and Mitchell Kranson followed with an RBI single to center to make it 1-0. But Sawczak got Brett Cumberland to ground into a double play and two batters later picked up the third out on a Preston Grand Pre flare to short.
In the bottom of the second, Chadwick connected on his two-out opposite-field homer that kept carrying and bounced off the top of the wall to tie the game at 1. It was Chadwick’s fifth homer of the year and first in 15 games.
Riding that momentum, Sawczak then cruised through the next two innings, working around a lead-off single in the third to retire the next three batters before following with a perfect fourth.
But in the top of the fifth, he found more trouble.
Grand Pre reached on a one-out bloop single to center to get the pivotal inning started for the Bears. Freshman left fielder Josh Crump then made a diving catch on a liner from Robbie Tenerowicz, but Aaron Knapp and Devin Pearson followed with back-to-back RBI doubles to make it 3-1.
Sawczak was done after that, giving up six hits, a walk and three runs in five innings while striking out three, but the Bears were just getting started.
“Shane was OK. I mean, he’s come a million miles,” said Gilmore, who said after watching Cunningham throw in the morning he decided he’s best saved for a potential short relief role. “The sad part was for that young man to have to come into a Friday showdown with a guy that’s been a Friday night guy for two years and expect him to carry our weight when we don’t hit. This game was won on the pitcher’s mound by Jefferies. He just was better than our hitters today. It’s simple as that.”
Cal added an unearned run in the sixth off junior reliever Brock Hunter, who let a runner advance to second on a wild pick-off throw before yielding an RBI single to Cumberland.
In the eighth, Lucas Erceg and Paul led off with back-to-back singles and both came in to score on a wild throw to first from Remillard on a Kranson sacrifice bunt toward third. And the Bears added three more runs in the ninth on an RBI double by Erceg, a sac fly by Paul and an RBI double by Kranson.
Young finished 2-for-4 with a run scored, coming after a double to leadoff the bottom of the ninth, while sophomore Seth Lancaster and Chadwick had the Chants’ other hits in the game. Junior catcher Casey Schroeder missed his second straight game due to a back injury as freshman Matt Beaird filled in behind the plate again.
For Cal, Kranson was 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored, Pearson was 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run, Erceg was 2-for-5 with an RBI and a run and Paul was 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs.
The Bears, making their first NCAA Regionals appearance since reaching the College World Series in 2011, have a nice head start in the regional now, while Coastal Carolina, making its 13th regionals appearance in the last 15 seasons after missing out last year, can’t afford another loss if it hopes to advance.
“We embarrassed ourself defensively and that part has really got me jammed up right now,” Gilmore said. “… We’ll see if we want to stay here and see if we can compete tomorrow and at least play like the Coastal Carolina team that’s won 38 games. That’s not who we were today.
“I’ll tip my hat to Jefferies, he was very good, and they got some timely hits, but that’s not the team that won the games against all those SEC and ACC teams we played all year. That’s not the team that showed up today. That part I’m frustrated about.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.
Who | No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina vs. No. 4 Texas Southern
When | 1 p.m. EST
Where | Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park, College Station, Texas
What | Chanticleers face an elimination game in the four-team NCAA Regionals bracket.
TV/Internet | ESPN3.com
Radio | WSEA-FM 100.3