Coastal Carolina reaches Sun Belt baseball title game
Coastal Carolina has rewritten the offensive record book for the Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championship.
Will that translate to a tournament championship and berth in an NCAA regional for the 16th time in the past 19 years?
Or will the Chanticleers’ bats not be enough to overcome the team’s deficiencies, particularly a run-down pitching staff that has struggled much of the season.
The fifth-seeded Chants (34-24-1) pounded out two wins against Louisiana-Monroe Saturday to reach Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game against a relatively rested No. 2 seed Georgia Southern (35-23).
“So many different people stepped up today, it was unbelievable,” CCU coach Gary Gilmore said. “They don’t want to quit playing. Honestly we went through a period of time during this year where I questioned that, I think they questioned it, fans questioned it. . . . Anybody that has watched us this week can’t question for one second this team doesn’t want to win. They want to win very badly.”
The Eagles feature the lowest team earned-run average in the conference this season at 4.42 and defeated Troy 1-0 in the semifinals Saturday morning. Their team ERA in an otherwise high-scoring tournament is just 2.03.
Georgia Southern is expected to start their junior ace, righthander Seth Shuman (6-5), who is sixth in the Sun Belt with a 3.59 ERA and has struck out 109 while walking 25 in 87 2/3 innings.
Shuman will be pitching on three days’ rest after allowing two runs on five hits in six innings Wednesday with five strikeouts, two walks and 108 pitches thrown in Georgia Southern’s 13-inning win over Louisiana.
CCU pitchers available to throw innings Sunday include Zach McCambley, Scott Kobos, Anthony Veneziano, Alaska Abney and Kiernan Higgins.
“We’ve got four or five guys. I think we’ll show up and have somebody that’s willing to take the ball and we’ll go from there,” Gilmore said. “We should have three or four pretty good guys to go up against Shuman. They’re a very good team, a little bit more rested than us, but we’ll see.”
The Eagles advanced through the winner’s bracket and have played just three games this week, while the Chants went through the loser’s bracket following an opening loss to Texas-Arlington and have played five games in four days, the last of those finishing after 11 Saturday night.
“We may roll out there tomorrow and be completely beat and no matter what we do we can’t get it done,” Gilmore said. “I really don’t think that will happen. I think they’ve still got one good ballgame left in them before we run out of gas.”
Coastal pummeled ULM 26-10 Saturday afternoon and continued the onslaught in Saturday’s nightcap, winning 10-6.
CCU’s offense has been overpowering.
In the Sun Belt tournament it has: set a tournament record with 71 runs scored, surpassing the previous record by 10 runs; tied a tournament record with 15 home runs; set a single-game record with 26 runs in a game, surpassing the previous record by four runs; tied a record with five home runs in a game, and did it in consecutive games; combined with ULM to score the most runs in a game with 36, passing the previous record of 34.
The Chants are also chasing the tournament hits record of 89. They have 80.
Sun Belt tournament records date back to 1978.
“I think we have a lot of confidence in our offense. One through nine there are no easy outs. Anyone can get it done at any given time,” said sophomore outfielder Parker Chavers, who was 7-of-8 with a walk, four RBI and six runs scored in the two games Saturday. “We’re swinging it well at a good time and we just have to keep that up [Sunday].”
In the nightcap, Coastal started freshman Nick Parker (0-1, 6.32 ERA), who made six starts in 14 appearances this year and threw 2 2/3 innings and 68 pitches on Thursday. Parker allowed two runs in four innings.
Trevor Damron allowed four runs on five hits in three innings and recorded a career-high seven strikeouts.
ULM started Dylan Marsh, who sported a 15.58 ERA with 40 hits and 30 earned runs allowed in 17 1/3 innings pitched this season, and he predictably allowed five runs on six hits in the first inning to the Chants’ scorching offense.
Cory Wood and Jake Wright singled and scored on a Kyle Skeels single, Chavers launched a two-run homer, Scott McKeon doubled and Mike Koenig singled him home. A Wood double and Kieton Rivers RBI groundout gave the Chants a 6-0 lead in the second, and following a two-run homer by ULM’s Chad Bell in the third, the Chants added three runs in the bottom of the third on a Bradley Riopelle sacrifice fly and two-run Wood double.
The Chants held a 10-2 lead through five innings before ULM made it interesting with two-run homers by Carson Klepzig in the seventh and Bell in the eighth off Damron to pull within four runs.
Junior lefty Jay Causey of Conway entered with a runner on and no outs in the eighth and retired his first three batters on a flyout, popup and strikeout to squelch the rally before pitching a perfect ninth with three strikeouts.
“I hadn’t seen Trevor Damron throw like that since the like the first, second week of March. He has not been that guy,” Gilmore said. “That was incredible. He looked just like the guy that pitched at Safeco Park and all the places we played early. It was dominating and fantastic, and it was great to see Jay Causey go out there and throw two fantastic innings for us.”
Earlier Saturday, both Rivers and Wright hit two homers and Cameron Pearcey hit a grand slam to help power a record-setting performance. CCU erased a four-run deficit and blew the game open with two runs in the sixth, three in the seventh, nine in the eighth and seven in the ninth.
With the pitching staff depleted after three long games in three days including a pair of extra-inning affairs – 11 pitchers made 15 combined appearances in the three games – Coastal needed innings from junior starter Austin Kitchen.
Gilmore stayed with Kitchen as long as he could but pulled him after 3 2/3 innings, nine runs, 11 hits and a career-high 111 pitches.
Redshirt freshman Kiernan Higgins, the only other CCU pitcher who hadn’t thrown this week, replaced Kitchen but pitched to only three batters before a one-hour suspension because of lightning in the area, and did not return following the delay, after which CCU scored 21 runs.
“I think the lightning delay was actually big for us,” Chavers said. “We all got in the locker room and kind of settled down and got refreshed and came out hot after that and just really put it to them and swung the bats well for the rest of the day.”
Senior Matt Eardensohn, pitching for the third time in four days, took the mound in the fifth after the delay with two runners on and retired three straight batters. He went on to retire nine straight and threw the final five innings, allowing just two hits and a run with five strikeouts while throwing 73 pitches.
Eardensohn said he told CCU pitching coach Drew Thomas on Friday night that “anything and everything he needed I could do it. I felt fine after yesterday and the day before. . . . I thought I could probably go three, maybe four and I really got on a roll there. I kind of settled in and kept my pitch count down I felt fine the whole day. At this point I’m willing to do whatever it takes. It might come back to haunt me a little bit but it’s fine right now. I’m happy to win.”
ULM had lost two straight and four of its final six games to enter the tournament at 24-29 overall and 12-17 in the conference, but it beat No. 7 South Alabama, No. 1 Texas State and No. 4 UT Arlington by a combined 38-12 to reach Saturday’s semifinals.