When the Coastal Carolina baseball team left Georgia Tech two weekends ago after being swept in a three-game series, it did so humbled for the first time in a while and suddenly with something to prove.
The Chanticleers’ national rankings promptly tumbled and their hopes for hosting an NCAA regional paused for at least the time being, as all remaining games took on even more importance if they were going to make a statement to the NCAA selection committee.
Well, the Chants responded to that setback in about the most emphatic way possible, going on the road for a three-game sweep at Big South rival Liberty last weekend, outscoring the Flames 43-12 in the series.
And the message that sent was not only for those outside the program, but it also had its value internally as well.
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“It was honestly pretty awesome to see,” senior third baseman Zach Remillard said. “We got it stuck to us by Georgia Tech. They have a pretty good team. I mean, it was tough obviously to drop three games – we hadn’t been swept all season. It was definitely an interesting thought how we were going to respond, but it was awesome to see that we could come out and play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and go out there and compete even harder.
“It’s pretty easy to have a little bit of a skid after getting swept, but it was good to see us turn it around.”
The convincing sweep pushed the Chants’ record to 34-14 and gave them a boost in a few of the national polls as they climbed to No. 20 in the D1Baseball.com rankings and earned a No. 21 ranking by PerfectGame.org, No. 23 in the USA TODAY coaches poll, No. 24 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 26 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association while remaining unranked by Baseball America.
I think the thing at Georgia Tech humbled everyone involved, from coaches down to players. We had a game won there and let it get away from us. We hadn’t had that happen in a while, and I think they had to step back and kind of realize we had quite a bit more work to do. I thought [last] weekend it was three days of real focus by the guys and it showed.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
It also marked the first time Liberty had been swept in the four-year history of its stadium.
More importantly, though, it very quickly returned the Chants to the momentum they were riding in winning 18 of 20 games before that Georgia Tech series, as seven of the team’s nine starters had five hits in the sweep and another had four in a thorough offensive performance.
“I think the thing at Georgia Tech humbled everyone involved, from coaches down to players,” coach Gary Gilmore said. “We had a game won there and let it get away from us. We hadn’t had that happen in a while, and I think they had to step back and kind of realize we had quite a bit more work to do. I thought [last] weekend it was three days of real focus by the guys and it showed.
“Sometimes the painful lessons come at a point in time where you can’t figure out how to fix something, and at least this came at a time where we still had three or four weeks to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to be a lot better at this, this and this if we’re going to compete against a very good ACC team.’ I think that hopefully was the message they received and they demonstrated it last weekend.”
The Chants will now look to build on that as they head to Charleston Southern this weekend for a three-game series starting Friday.
The Buccaneers (16-29) are last in the Big South with a 4-14 conference mark while the Chants enter the weekend with a four-game lead atop the standings at 16-2.
Which makes this a completely different kind of challenge, Gilmore said, but no less important.
“Liberty has always been a rivalry that at least here at Coastal is not a hard one to get psyched up and ready to play, so to speak. And this one this coming weekend is going to be more of a mental challenge because you allow your brain to look at a record and you allow yourself mentally to relax,” he said. “That’s going to be my greatest challenge, to [convey] that regardless of what we do the rest of the year if we go down there and lose, as far as playing on this field [as a host in the NCAA regionals] we’re probably done.
“You can take that and put internal pressure on yourself or you can come out with the focus that we had at Liberty and do the things we should be able to do. Every real good team has to be able to win when they should win.”
The home run race continues
As much as the players say they don’t have any competitive stake in it, the Chants’ internal home run competition remains incredibly compelling.
With two homers each last weekend, Remillard and senior right fielder Connor Owings remain tied for the team lead and conference lead with 13 while junior designated hitter G.K. Young is third in the Big South with 12 homers and junior shortstop Michael Paez is at 10.
“It’s really cool to think that we’re all this close together, but it’s not really a race to me or probably any of the guys,” Young said. “We’re just all seeing the ball real good right now and fortunate enough to all hit a bunch of home runs at the same time.”
The Chants hit seven homers in all during that three-game series, which is even more impressive when considering that in the 22 previous games played at Liberty Baseball Stadium this season a total of 12 homers had been hit by the Flames and their opponents combined.
Meanwhile, it’s the first time the Chants have had this many players with double-digit home run totals since having six do it in 2010.
It will take at least 16 homers for any player to crack the program’s all-time single-season top-10 list, though.
Owings honored, moved up in the order
Owings was named the Big South Player of the Week for the second time in a month after batting .556 (5-for-9) in that series at Liberty with two doubles, two home runs, a 1.444 slugging percentage, five RBIs, five runs, six walks and a .733 on-base percentage.
Of course, Owings has almost made such performances routine at this point during a career year.
“Connor is a better overall hitter than he was a year ago, but it’s not so much his swing – maybe a little bit it has refined – but it’s as much him just understanding who he is and what he’s trying to do,” Gilmore said. “I don’t know that he’s given an at-bat up all year, which is incredible.”
The Chants made a change to their potent batting order in that series while having Owings move up to the No. 3 spot with Young dropping down to No. 5 behind Remillard. Gilmore indicated he would stick with that lineup going forward as Owings’ ability to draw pitches and work deep counts makes him a better fit higher up in the order.
Beckwith to remain in the rotation
The Chants will stick with the same weekend rotation with junior right-hander Alex Cunningham (7-3, 4.08 ERA) starting Friday, junior righty Andrew Beckwith (8-1, 1.87) going Saturday and freshman righty Jason Bilous (0-1, 5.40) throwing Sunday.
After some consideration on whether to use Beckwith as a starter or keep him available for high-leverage relief situations, Gilmore said the team will keep in the rotation for the time being.
That keeps sophomore righty Bobby Holmes (4-1, 5.79) back in the bullpen where he’s always seemed to perform better.
“I really think Bobby brings more to our team out of the bullpen. He can go balls to the wall, so to speak, for two innings rather than try to pace himself for six,” Gilmore said. “His velocity jumps up. He got up to 92 [miles-per-hour] the other day. I can see him hopefully getting back to 93s and 94s where he gets aggressive and gets after it again.
“Beckwith has just been, honestly he’s been too good to put him back in the bullpen and get two or three innings out of him. The challenge for us is if we do have a pitching failure, in all honesty, there’s not another Beckwith down in the bullpen to scramble up, get him in the game and get us out of stuff and completely change the tempo of the game and the momentum.”