Greenville, S.C. – Eighth-seeded Western Carolina rallied back from a six-run deficit with a combined seven runs between the sixth and seventh innings on Thursday morning, but No. 5 seed Furman found the game’s final three runs to survive and advance into Friday’s loser’s bracket winner game at Fluor Field.
The Catamounts used a Luke Robinson triple in the sixth inning to hang its first number on the scoreboard as a part of a three-run frame to cut the deficit in half before pushing across four runs in a two-out rally just after stretch time to pull ahead, 7-6, through seven complete innings. However, Furman hit two of its four home runs in the game over the final two frames to pull back in front and eliminating WCU from the 2019 Southern Conference Baseball Championship presented by Holston Gases.
The Paladins (26-30) advance to face the loser of Thursday’s winner’s bracket game between No. 2 Wofford and No. 6 ETSU who advanced on Wednesday evening. WCU has its 2019 season come to a close with a record of 21-32.
Three Catamounts posted multi-hit games as Andrew Bullock finished a game-high 3-for-4 with a pair of infield singles and one through the right side. Bullock reached base four times all told by adding a fourth-inning HBP. Robinson collected a pair of extra base hits with a RBI triple and a double – both just missing getting out of the ball park – while Daylan Nanny likewise tallied a pair of hits on two singles, reaching a three time on a first-inning walk.
Redshirt junior Justin Sparks reached base three times with a pair of walks and a two-RBI single in the seventh that made it a one-run game, 6-5. Sparks finished with a team-high .556 batting average, collecting a team-best five base hits and five RBI on a .692 on-base percentage. Sophomore Will Prater added two more RBI to his tourney total of four with a two-RBI single in the seventh in a 1-for-5 outing.
Redshirt senior Matthew Koehler made his return to the lineup after missing the first two games of the tournament, delivering a single in the seventh and ultimately scoring the go-ahead run on Prater’s knock, with Jalen Jones reaching twice with a single and a walk.
After two scoreless frames, Furman pulled out to a 6-0 lead over a four-inning span with the help of extra base hits. The first of two doubles by Banks Griffith on the day represented the Paladins’ first hit in the third inning before David Webel homered over the “Green Monster” in left for the 2-0 edge. A solo homer by John Michael Boswell pushed the margin to three in the fourth before a pair of walks were plated on a two-RBI double by Trent Alley to make it 5-0 through four complete. Furman collected on a Catamount error in the top of the sixth with a two-out, two-bagger by Griffith for the six-run advantage.
Consensus SoCon Player of the Year Justice Bigbie reached on a HBP to start the sixth ahead of Robinson who blasted his fourth triple of the season to center field to plate WCU’s first run. The opportunistic Catamounts took advantage of a walk to put two runners aboard with two runs crossing home on Furman infield errors to trim the margin to three, 6-3, through six complete.
On the heels of an inning-ending double-play in the top of the seventh, the designated home team, WCU, struck in the bottom half of the frame after a slow start. Following a pair of ground outs, Robinson drew a walk before Bullock drove a single through the right side. A wild pitch put both runners further into scoring position where Sparks laced a two-run single into right field to make it 6-5. Koehler kept the hit parade rolling with a single through the right side with Jones putting two aboard with a free pass. Prater then singled up the middle scoring Sparks and Koehler for the 7-6 Catamount lead.
WCU’s advantage was short-lived, though, as Furman got a lead-off infield single behind the bag at third by Jared Mihalik to start the eighth before Jabari Richards – who looked to bunt early in the at bat – cracked a line-drive home run over the fence in right field for the 8-7 Furman lead.
The Paladins escaped a second, two-out rally bid by WCU in the bottom of the eighth as Robinson doubled, Bullock singled, and Sparks walked to load the bases with two outs but WCU was held off the scoreboard. Furman added an insurance run on a solo home run by Logan Taplett in the top of the ninth and stranded runners at the corners in the home half of the frame as WCU brought the game-winning run to the plate.
Lost in the mix on Thursday was the strong start of redshirt sophomore Ryan Mitschele. The right-hander from Statesville, N.C., struck out a career-high seven over a 4.2 inning effort, working around two walks and four hits with the Paladins scoring five runs. Junior Joe Vranesic struck out and walked one with three hits and one unearned run allowed before being lifted.
A year after making three appearances in six games for the Catamounts, redshirt senior Taylor Purus (5-5) made his second relief trip to the mound on Thursday, entering in the seventh inning. Inheriting two runners and a 3-1 count, the bases were loaded on a walk before Purus induced a double-play ball for the SoCon’s leading squad to escape the seventh inning. The southpaw was ultimately tagged with the loss allowing three runs on four hits with a pair of strikeouts to give him nine in the tournament.
Furman reliever Rob Hughes (5-1), the third arm to go to the mound for the Paladins, scored the victory after surrendering the lead to WCU in the seventh inning. Hughes worked around three walks and six hits to limit the Catamounts to just two runs over a 2.1 inning effort. Starter David Dunlavey held the WCU lineup in check over 5.2 innings before getting touched-up in the sixth inning, striking out five against two walks.
Three of the four Paladins that homered posted two-hit games including Webel, Boswell, and Griffith, the latter of which proved to be the game winner. Alley’s double was his lone hit, collected two RBI.
In addition to Purus and Koehler, Thursday marked the final collegiate game for RHP Jake Moebius, who missed the tail end of the season with an elbow injury.