Greenville, S.C. - Western Carolina had a flair for the dramatic en route to winning the school's league-record 10th Southern Conference Baseball Championship on Sunday afternoon at Fluor Field at the West End.
Junior infielder Nobu Suzuki was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning and B.J. Nobles pitched into the ninth in his first start of the season as second-seeded Western Carolina topped No. 1 seed Mercer for the second time Sunday, winning the night cap, 3-2, to claim the SoCon tournament title, its first since 2003.
The Catamounts (30-29), who garner the SoCon's automatic bid into the NCAA postseason, will learn their destination and opponent on Monday (May 30), as the 2016 NCAA Division I Baseball Championship Selection Show, with regional pairings, will be revealed in a live, one-hour telecast on ESPNU at noon. Western Carolina will be making its first NCAA appearance since receiving an at-large bid in 2007 and its 12th overall.
After the Bears (38-23) tied the game at two on Charlie Madden's solo home run with one out in the top half of the ninth, Western Carolina came right back in the bottom half to win their second win-or-go-home contest of the day. Tournament Most Outstanding Player Matt Smith got the rally going with a leadoff single through the right side, and a sacrifice bunt moved him into scoring position. Kramer Ferrell was intentionally walked to put runners on first and second before Caleb Robinson drew a walk to load the bases.
Following a strikeout for the second out of the inning, Mercer reliever Conard Broom's very next pitch caught Suzuki -- a middle-inning substitution in the game -- on the left hip to force in Smith with the game-winning run.
The walk-off victory in the second of two championship games on Sunday evening bookended walk-off wins for the Catamounts at the 2016 championship tournament. Redshirt junior J.D. Long drew a bases loaded, walk-off walk in the team's come-from-behind win in its opener on Wednesday to down Wofford, keeping the Catamounts in the winner's bracket.
Mercer took an early lead as the designated visiting team on a Jose Hernandez RBI double put the Bears in front 1-0 in the second inning. Mercer then rode the right arm of starter Ryan Askew into the ninth. Askew was solid early, scattering four hits in the first five innings, but Western Carolina, which had yet to hit a home run in the tournament to that point, finally got to Askew in the sixth, going deep twice in a span of three batters to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead.
Bryson Bowman smoked the first pitch he saw out to left-center to even the game at one. Two batters later, after Smith nearly went back-to-back with a shot down the right field line, Danny Bermudez followed one out later with a 393-foot blast out to left to put the Catamounts on top.
That looked like it might be enough for Nobles, who was making his first start since May 15, 2015. The junior righty got out of the seventh with a strike-`em-out, throw-`em-out double play, and he retired the side in order in the eighth. With one out in the ninth, Mercer finally the big hit it needed off Nobles in Madden's homer, but Nobles got a flyout -- with a catch made at the wall by Bowman -- and senior Colton Davis worked around a Jackson Ware single to record the final out of the inning.
Davis, who earned a save out of the bullpen in the first game that forced the deciding contest, was credited with the win to improve to 7-3, while Nobles took the no-decision, allowing two runs (one earned) on five hits in 8 2/3 innings. Nobles struck out 10, one shy of his career-best.
Askew, who worked five scoreless innings in Mercer's first game of the tournament, took the loss after allowing three runs on seven hits in 8-plus innings.
Bowman and Smith finished with two hits each to lead WCU, which beat Mercer 4-2 in the day's first game to force the deciding winner-take-all nightcap.
Ware and Hernandez had two each for Mercer, which was trying to become the first back-to-back SoCon champion since The Citadel won consecutive titles in 1998 and 1999.
2016 Southern Conference Championship All-Tournament Team
SP -- Will Gaddis, Furman
SP -- B.J. Nobles, Western Carolina
RP -- Korey Anderson, Western Carolina
C -- Jake Kusz, UNCG
1B -- Matt Smith, Western Carolina
2B -- Frankie Navarrete, Samford
SS -- Matt Meeder, Mercer
3B -- Jake Crawford, Furman
OF -- Trey Truitt, Mercer
OF -- Heath Quinn, Samford
OF -- Kramer Ferrell, Western Carolina
DH -- Cesar Trejo, UNCG
Walt Nadzak Most Outstanding Player
Matt Smith, Western Carolina