Senior closer Mike Morrison has thrived under pressure all year while putting up one of the best seasons by a Coastal Carolina reliever in program history, and he’s gotten ample opportunity already in this Big South tournament to test his late inning prowess.
In the Chanticleers’ tournament opener Tuesday he blamed himself for letting a pair of inherited runners score before ultimately earning the win an inning later, but there was no question where coach Gary Gilmore was going in the ninth inning Wednesday in a similarly tense spot as Gardner-Webb put the potential tying runs on second and third with two outs.
The No. 4-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs got one of those runs home on an infield single, but Morrison ended the game like he has so many others this spring – with a strikeout – as the top-seeded Chants held on for a 4-3 win at Lexington County Baseball Stadium.
Coastal Carolina improved to 42-15 while picking up its eighth straight win and 11th in the last 12 games to earn a day off in the double-elimination bracket before a semifinals matchup to be determined on Friday.
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“I was just hoping he had enough in him to get through that inning,” Gilmore said of his closer. “I had hoped not to have to use him, but it got down to the last out and I just told [pitching coach Drew] Thomas that, ‘If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down with that guy out on the bump.’ And he found a way to get it done.”
The day before Morrison had come on in the eighth inning with runners on second and third and no outs against Radford and promptly got two strikeouts while nearly escaping the jam entirely before eventually allowing the tying runs to score on a wild pitch and infield single.
He pitched a scoreless ninth in that one, though, after the Chants had regained the lead, and he was back at it again Wednesday after Chandler Redmond doubled off reliever Bobby Holmes to put runners on second and third with two outs and the Chants protecting a two-run lead.
Gardner-Webb’s Tyler Best made it even more dramatic when he reached on an RBI infield single off the diving glove of first baseman Tyler Chadwick to make it a 4-3 game.
Morrison then started 2-0 to Justin Kunz before evening the count and eventually getting him to whiff on a slider.
“The guy got a little jam shot double off Bobby, it’s unexpected there, and then we got a groundball and Chaddy made a heck of a play to keep it in the infield and save the dang game from getting tied up,” Morrison recounted of that final inning. “And then we had him 3-2, the kid was hunting a fastball and I threw him three bad sliders in a row. I knew if I got the fourth one over he would have trouble with it. So I executed the pitch, and it’s a good win.”
[I’m thinking] ‘He’s got it.’ I’m pacing up and down the dugout, [but] we talk about it all the time – he loves that position, he loves runners on base, he loves the moment right there. You can’t trust anybody more than him. He’s done it all year. That’s his spot.
CCU pitcher Andrew Beckwith on trusting in closer Mike Morrison
That makes two tense games in two days for the presumptive favorites in this Big South tournament, not that the Chants are surprised by that.
“You expect it. We’re Coastal Carolina. Everybody in the Big South’s going to bring it to us,” junior starter Andrew Beckwith said. “It’s our last year in the Big South. It’s expected, and we just have to bring it every day.”
Added Gilmore: “I think we’re probably in for a bunch of them from here on out.”
Zach Remillard gave Coastal Carolina a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning Wednesday when he crushed a two-run homer to right for his league-leading 17th of the season – which is also the most for any Chanticleer since David Anderson hit 21 in 2009.
Gardner-Webb (37-20), which had gotten a solo homer from Danny Sullivan in the second inning to take an early lead, tied it up in the fifth on a solo shot from Matt Simmons.
But that’s all the Runnin’ Bulldogs would get against Beckwith as the Big South Pitcher of the Year allowed only two runs on eight hits and two walks over 7 2/3 innings.
Meanwhile, the Chants retook the lead in the bottom of the sixth when Connor Owings beat out a would-be inning-ending double play, Remillard dropped down an unexpected bunt single and G.K. Young capitalized with an RBI single to right.
They pushed the lead to 4-2 an inning later when Seth Lancaster led off with a double to the corner in right and came around to score on an RBI fielder’s choice grounder by Anthony Marks.
Lancaster was then involved in another pivotal play in the eighth. Gardner-Webb was threatening after back-to-back singles to start the inning when clean-up hitter Collin Thacker hit a jam shot in the air between first and second base. Lancaster raced to his left to try to catch it, but he couldn’t corral the ball and instead made a heads-up recovery to throw to third and start a double play.
In addition to his defensive contributions, Lancaster finished 2-for-3 with two doubles and a run while Remillard was 2-for-4 with two RBIs and Michael Paez was 2-for-4.
After the Chants escaped the jam in the eighth, that set the stage for the dramatic finish to the ninth.
And by this point, there is just a collective confidence with Morrison on the mound in those situations.
The save Wednesday was his seventh of the season, and he’s also 7-1 with a 0.93 ERA.
“[I’m thinking] ‘He’s got it.’ I’m pacing up and down the dugout, [but] we talk about it all the time – he loves that position, he loves runners on base, he loves the moment right there,” Beckwith said. “You can’t trust anybody more than him. He’s done it all year. That’s his spot.”
Said Remillard: “He’s been there all season for us, has a lot of consistency, competes for us all day and there’s no one else we’d rather have out there right there”