Macon, Ga. - Junior LHP Brendan Nail struck out 11 batters while limiting Mercer to two runs on just two hits over seven innings on Friday night as Western Carolina clinched the Southern Conference series win with a game two victory, 3-2, over the Bears at OrthoGeorgia Park. The two teams combined for 25 strikeouts -- 13 by WCU and 12 by Mercer -- over the nine-inning affair.
Trailing by a run entering the final frame, the home-standing Bears put two runners aboard with one out against reliever Korey Anderson. However, the Grayson, Ga., native induced a ground ball with the combination of Brett Pope, Nobu Suzuki, and Matt Smith tallying the final two outs on the squad's 54th double-play of the season and to lock-in the win.
Western Carolina's victory -- its fourth-straight over Mercer over the past two seasons -- coupled with UNCG's 7-1 road loss at Samford locks the Catamounts into a second-place finish in the SoCon and a number two seed at next week's Southern Conference Baseball Championship, presented by Holston Gases -- both for the second-straight year.
For a second-consecutive day, the Catamounts rode a strong starting pitching performance to the victory. Nail posted his third, double-digit strikeout total of the year, finishing just one K shy of his career-high of 12. The Greensboro, N.C., native countered three walks with the 11 strikeouts while only allowing two earned runs on two hits. Anderson tallied his team-best fifth save of the season, striking out two against a pair of walks of one-hit, scoreless relief.
Senior infielder Nobu Suzuki provided all the offensive spark the Catamounts would need, recording all three RBI in the 3-2 win including a solo home run in the top of the fourth inning that proved to be the game-winning runs. The Tokyo, Japan, product finished 2-for-4 on the night. Freshman outfielder Andrew Robinson matched Suzuki with a pair of singles in four trips. Juniors Caleb Robinson and Spencer Holcomb also singled as WCU finished with seven hits in the winning effort.
Smith stretched his active reached base safely streak to 36-consecutiv with a first inning walk, while redshirt senior Bryson Bowman reached all four times he stepped into the batter's box including a first-inning HBP, drew a pair of walks, and singled in the eighth inning. WCU did have two double-digit reached base safely streaks come to a close as both Pope and redshirt sophomore Matthew Koehler failed to reach, halting career-long streaks at 18 and 14 games, respectively.
Bowman and Smith reached consecutively with two outs in the top of the first inning on a hit batter and walk, respectively. Suzuki then dropped a two-RBI single into right field to push WCU ahead by a pair. In the bottom of the frame, Mercer cashed in a lead-off walk to Matt Meeder with a bases loaded infield ground out to make it 2-1 after one.
The score would remain the same until Suzuki drove the first p itch of the fourth inning down the left field line for his fourth homer run of the season, giving WCU back its two-run cushion, 3-1. Mercer (38-15, 17-6 SoCon) closed back to within a run in the fifth with a home run of its own as Jackson Ware belted a lead-off homer to left to ultimately provide the final tally.
Before their attempt at a ninth-inning rally, the Bears threatened in the seventh as catcher Charlie Madden reached on a lead-off walk before being moved into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. However, the next two in the order flew out to right and grounded out 3-1 to end the inning. Meeder drew a one-out walk in the eighth, but was stranded at first -- one of five runners left by Mercer.
Meeder reached twice on a pair of walks to lead the Bears, while Mercer's three hits were spread between three different batters including Ware, shortstop Ryan Hagan, and DH J.T. Thomas.
Mercer starter Austin Cox (3-2) took the loss, surrendering all three runs on just two hits with seven strikeouts countering two walks. Three arms out of the Bears' bullpen tossed the final five innings of five-hit, shutout relief with five combined strikeouts.
Game three of the three-game conference series is slated for a 2:00 pm first pitch on Saturday afternoon in Macon. The Bears will honor their seniors in a special pregame ceremony in the final game of the 2017 regular season.