The Coastal Carolina baseball team lost only three Big South games all season and won the regular-season title by a commanding seven-game margin, but the top-seeded Chanticleers got quite a challenge on the opening day of the conference tournament.
Eighth-seeded Radford took a two-run lead in the fifth inning Tuesday, and then after it looked like the Chants had seized the momentum with five straight runs the Highlanders came back to tie the game in the eighth and put the pressure on yet again.
That only served to make the final innings a little more dramatic, though.
Coastal Carolina loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth and Connor Owings blooped a single to the back of the infield that led to two runs and eventually a 7-5 win at Lexington County Baseball Stadium as the Chants finally dashed the Highlanders’ upset bid.
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“We had to scrap. I tip my hat to them, they played very well and we played just well enough to win,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “I told [the players] for two days now exactly what to expect. I think people look at us at times and just think you can flip the switch and we’re going to hit a bunch of home runs and everything comes easy. I’ve been around this game my entire life and great pitching slows down great hitting.”
It wasn’t pretty, but Coastal Carolina (41-15) has now won seven straight games and 10 of its last 11 as it advances to play No. 4 Gardner-Webb on Wednesday night in the double-elimination bracket.
“It’s tournament baseball. Everybody’s coming in here 0-0 in the records,” shortstop Michael Paez said. “Everybody’s the same so you’ve got to work hard and scratch and claw for the whole game.”
That was the blueprint Tuesday night.
Radford (17-38) opened the eighth inning with singles from Colby Higgerson and Danny Hrbek and an RBI double from Shane Johnsonbaugh to cut the Chants’ lead to 5-3 at the time.
Coastal Carolina brought in closer Mike Morrison, who promptly racked up two strikeouts before walking Chandler Davis and uncorking a wild pitch to make it a 5-4 game. Pinch-hitter Jordan Taylor then tied it with an infield single up the middle.
But the Chants wasted no time taking control once more.
The Radford bullpen walked the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the eighth, and the tension continued to mount as reliever Austin Ross battled back to strikeout Paez for the second out.
That brought up Owings, a former star from nearby Gilbert High School. He got jammed, but he got enough on the ball to drop it toward second base. Higgerson, Radford’s shorstop, fielded it cleanly but his low throw to first on what would have been a bang-bang play eluded first baseman Nygeal Andrews, and a second run scored on the play as Andrews followed with a throwing error toward home.
“I’m glad we weren’t hitting with wood. That would have shattered my bat,” Owings said. “But it found a spot and good things happen when you put the ball in play, and we were able to come out with a big hard-fought win.”
That was enough as Morrison, another former Gilbert High School standout from just down the road, closed out the ninth and earned the win to improve to 7-1.
Alex Cunningham had given the Chants six strong innings while allowing six hits and two runs with five strikeouts in a no-decision.
At the plate, Paez went 2-for-4 with two doubles and two runs scored, Zach Remillard was 1-for-3 with two RBIs and a run, G.K. Young went 2-for-5 with an RBI and a run and Owings and Billy Cooke finished with an RBI each in the win.
Radford’s Zack Ridgely took a no decision after opening with five scoreless innings before ultimately giving up five hits, four walks and three runs.
“These guys find ways to win,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got some guys that are very good professional-type hitters and we did just what we had to do. It was maybe one of the uglier games we’ve played, but we found a way to win. We’ve lost two or three games like this as well during the year, so I was just glad we were able to fight through some things and hopefully [Wednesday] we can come back and play more like Coastal Carolina.”