Cullowhee, N.C. – Justice Bigbie blasted a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday afternoon, forcing extra innings for the second time in the three-game series. However, an HBP and stolen base by catcher Ryan Smoot moved the Keydet backstop into scoring position where he was plated on a run-scoring double by Callen Nuccio as VMI recovered for a 10-inning, 9-8, victory over Western Carolina to win the Southern Conference series over the Catamounts at Childress Field / Hennon Stadium.
Trailing 8-6 through eight complete, Matthew Koehler, who reached base four times and scored four runs in the loss, drew a lead-off HBP ahead of Bigbie. The Chesapeake, Va., native the pulled the fourth pitch of his at bat over the fence in left center field to claw the Catamounts back even at eight on the team’s first extra base hit of the game.
Looking to end the game in regulation, WCU put a runner at second base on a two-out high chopping Luke Robinson double down the first base line that alluded the defender with Justin Sparks reaching on an HBP. However, a fly-ball out to center stranded both runners – two of WCU’s game-high 11 left on base.
After Smoot’s run in the top of the 10th, Prater legged out a lead-off double to right center to put the game-tying run at second base. However, consecutive fly outs followed by a two-out walk to Bigbie had WCU down to its final out. Nanny bounced one down the first base line, but Ryan Hatten secured the ball and won the race to the bag to end the game.
Bigbie finished 3-for-4 with a pair of singles and the game-tying home run, adding two walks with three RBI and three runs scored. Koehler added an HBP to a trio of singles in a 3-for-5 showing while Daylan Nanny finished 3-for-6 with two runs driven in between his three singles. Rounding out WCU’s four multi-hit games was Will Prater, who tallied the only other extra base hit for the Catamounts with a 10th-inning double in a 2-for-5 offensive performance.
Despite finishing 0-for-3 at the plate, Andrew Bullock plated a pair of runs on both a sacrifice fly and a bases loaded walk.
VMI broke a scoreless deadlock in the top of the third inning as Will Knight pulled a three-run home run over the fence in left center for a 3-0 advantage. The Keydets pushed that margin to four with a solo marker in the top of the fourth a Noah Cook drew a two-out walk before scoring on a Smoot double.
The Catamounts managed to light the scoreboard for the first time in the bottom of the fourth, cutting VMI’s lead in half with a pair of runs. Koehler and Bigbie reached to open the frame on a single and a walk with Nanny singling to left center and Bullock driving a sacrifice fly to right to produce the runs. However, VMI got both runs back in the top of the fifth on a two-run double by Josh Hollifield, chasing WCU starter Ty McCulloch.
In the sixth inning, the Catamounts loaded the bases with nobody out, but were limited to just two runs scoring – the first of which came on a bases loaded walk to Bullock. Luke Robinson then drove in a marker on a sacrifice fly to left before a strikeout and the third out at home on an attempted double-play stymied the would-be big inning and keeping the home squad down a pair, 6-4, through six innings.
The two teams traded two runs apiece in the seventh inning including a two-run home run by Jonathan Clines in the top of the frame, answered by RBI singles by Bigbie and Nanny in the home half. Prater ignited WCU’s rally by beating out an infield chopper before three-consecutive two-out singles, the last two driving in runs to make it 8-6, ultimately setting-up Bigbie’s home run heroic of the ninth followed by the eventual game-winning 10th for VMI.
Reliever Jack Snyder (1-2) was the tough-luck loser for WCU after tossing a solid 3.2 innings out of the bullpen. The Chicago, Ill., native struck out three-consecutive including one to end the top of the ninth and the first two hitters of the 10th before the Smoot HBP and subsequent double by Nuccio. McCulloch struck out five against three walks, allowing six runs on seven hits in a WCU career-long 4.1 innings of work before Joe Vranesic pitched two innings of two-hit, two-run relief.
VMI’s Will Lopez (4-0) scored his second extra inning relief victory of the series, tossing the final inning and a third of scoreless relief, limiting WCU to one hit and a walk. Zak Kent struck out nine against two walks over a seven inning start, surrendering six runs on 10 hits – all singles for one of the SoCon’s leaders in extra base hits in 2019.
Three Keydets finished with two hits apiece including two doubles by Smoot, who reached four times adding a walk and a HBP, with Jake Huggins singling twice in a 2-for-6 outing. Jonathan Clines doubled with two RBI in a 2-for-4 showing with Knight plating three on the third-inning home run.
Western Carolina (18-21, 7-11 SoCon) steps out of conference for four games next week, first on Tuesday night visiting rival Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., for a 5:00 pm first pitch. The Catamounts then visit Georgia Tech in Atlanta next weekend for a three-game set against the Yellow Jackets.