Coastal Carolina could stave off elimination no longer, bringing to an end the careers of four players who were the final vestiges on the field of the 2016 NCAA national championship team.
After winning six consecutive elimination games combined in the Sun Belt Conference Championship and NCAA Atlanta Regional, the Chanticleers fell 10-8 Sunday at Russ Chandler Stadium to Georgia Tech, the No. 3 national seed.
The Yellow Jackets (43-18) overcame a 7-2 deficit through five innings with two runs in the sixth, five in the seventh and one in the ninth to advance to a rematch with Auburn on Sunday night. They need to defeat the Tigers twice to and advance to a Super Regional.
The Chants (36-26-1) reached Sunday’s elimination game in the double-elimination regional with a 9-4 win over Florida A&M on Saturday following a 16-7 loss to Auburn on Friday.
“Obviously it hurts. It’s devastating because we don’t get to hang out with each other every day like we used to,” said outfielder Kieton Rivers, one of six CCU seniors and one of the four who played on the 2016 College World Series championship team.
Along with Rivers, Austin Kitchen, Cameron Pearcey and Bobby Holmes earned 2016 national title rings with coach Gary Gilmore, and junior catcher Kyle Skeels redshirted that season.
“I just want to thank this man [Gilmore] for giving me the best four years of my life,” Rivers said while fighting back tears. “It’s a life-changing experience to be with the guys I have been over these past four years. I’ve made a lot of friendships and enjoyed my time. I thank this school, I thank all the coaches for the opportunity they gave me and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Coastal repeatedly flirted with danger against Georgia Tech before finally relinquishing the lead in the seventh. The Yellow Jackets loaded the bases in four consecutive innings from the fourth through the seventh, with five walks, three hit batters and an error all contributing to filling the bases.
“The things that killed us were walks and hit batters in those middle innings,” Gilmore said. “It wasn’t hits, not until the very end when they put the five spot on us. We created that all for them. Ultimately at the end of the day it’s why you end up with the record you end up with compared to having 45 wins and 15 to 18 losses. We’ve gone down this road.”
The Yellow Jackets loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings against freshman reliever Alaska Abney, and after coming up empty on the first two occasions with fly balls to end innings, they plated two runs in the sixth.
Nick Wilhite delivered a two-run single in the sixth following two walks and a hit batter, but the Chants avoided further damage on a deep flyout to left-center by Jackson Webb.
Georgia Tech took a 9-7 lead with five runs in the seventh inning.
The Yellow Jackets loaded the bases against Dylan Gentry on a pair of walks and Michael Guldberg single, which was preceded by Coastal pitching coach Drew Thomas being thrown out of the game after a visit to the mound that included a conversation with home plate umpire Josh Schepis.
McCann hit a bases-clearing triple off the wall in right off reliever Jay Causey and Tristin English doubled down the left-field line to score McCann and chase Causey after two batters. Colin Hall added an RBI single off senior Matt Eardensohn, who finished the game on the mound.
“It just happened to be that the middle of their order came up with the bases loaded, and their two really good hitters right there,” CCU’s Zach Biermann said. “It’s hard to do something with them when you’ve got the bases loaded so you’ve got to pitch to them. I think the inability to make pitches, the inability to make plays hurt us in the end.”
The Chants loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the seventh but could manage just one run largely because of a crazy and unfortunate play for the Chants.
Biermann singled, Skeels was hit by a pitch and Parker Chavers reached on a ground ball to third to load the bases when third baseman Webb missed a tag on Biermann.
Scott McKeon hit a line drive up the middle that knocked the glove off English, who moved from first base to pitcher, as he ducked and put his glove up in self-defense. So instead of a run-scoring single, the ball deflected to second baseman Wilhite, who turned a double play.
“We had chances to win,” Gilmore said. “We hit a bullet right at English’s head. I don’t know how in the world he got the glove up, that thing would have ricocheted off his head, and he ricochets it to the [second baseman] and they turn a double play on us. If that ball’s in center field, if that ball gets by we score two and possibly have a guy at third base as well. Man it’s a game of inches.”
Coastal scored a run on the play, but Nick Lucky struck out to end the inning and strand Skeels at third with the Chants trailing 9-8.
A solo home run by Colin Hall in the top of the ninth reestablished Georgia Tech’s two-run advantage.
Coastal Carolina jumped on Georgia Tech right-handed starter Keyton Gibson for four runs in the bottom of the first inning, knocking him out of the game in just 1/3 of an inning.
Cory Wood walked on four pitches to lead off the first, Rivers doubled off the glove of third baseman Webb and Biermann ripped a two-run single into center field.
Skeels doubled down the left field line, Chavers walked to load the bases, McKeon hit an RBI single to right and Lucky hit a sacrifice fly to center to put CCU up 4-0.
Gibson (1-2) entered the game with a 5.40 earned-run average in 18 appearances, and was making just his third start of the season.
Coastal junior lefthander Scott Kobos started for the Chants against a Yellow Jackets lineup that featured five left-handed hitters. He went just three innings, allowing two runs on five hits and two walks with three strikeouts while throwing 73 pitches.
His pitch count was elevated because of poor defense, as Jake Wright misplayed a fly ball into a double in right field, a sharp one-hopper bounced off Biermann’s body at first base for what was ruled a single, and a popup landed in foul territory near bleachers on the third-base side to extend an at-bat that resulted in a walk.
“We’ve been fighting the same things all year long,” Gilmore said. “The things we fought once we lost one of our infield guys it completely changed the complexion of our defense and completely changed the complexion of our pitching and the whole nine yards. The only reason we’ve been able to cover up a lot of stuff is because the offense has been so good.”
Georgia Tech plated two runs in the third off Kobos on a Waddell single off Biermann, Michael Guldberg walk, McCann RBI single and sacrifice fly by English.
The Chants took a 7-2 lead with three runs in the fourth when Pearcey walked and advanced to second on a balk that was contested by Georgia Tech because a spectator yelled “balk,” leading to a 10-minute delay for a review before the call was upheld. Pearcey scored on a Wood single, Wood scored on a Rivers single and error by right fielder Baron Radcliff, and Rivers scored on a Skeels sacrifice fly.
Georgia Tech dropped into the elimination game with the Chants because of a crushing 6-5 loss to Auburn Saturday night on a walk-off three-run home run by Steven Williams with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth inning.