GREENVILLE, S.C. –—Looking to win a second consecutive Southern Conference Tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals, the Georgia Southern University baseball team gave everything it had.
But on this day, that would not be enough.
The sixth-seeded Eagles (33-27) loaded the bases and scored a game-tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning, but could not hold off a big-hitting Samford team and fell to the fourth-seeded Bulldogs, 9-6, on Sunday afternoon at Fluor Field.
Samford’s Zeth Stone delivered a blow in the 10th inning that proved the game’s deciding factor, lacing a two-out triple over an out-stretched first baseman and into the right field corner to clear the loaded base-paths.
GSU hitters could not muster a second comeback, and were set-down in order during the next half inning.
The Bulldogs (39-21) won the SoCon Tournament championship for the first time in Samford's history. Samford now faces Mississippi State – winners of the Southeastern Conference tournament – Friday in the first game of the Tallahassee Regional hosted by Florida State. Play begins Friday at 16 regional sites throughout the country.
"You have to tip your hat to Zeth Stone. He had a big hit for them in a big situation," GSU head coach Rodney Hennon said. "Samford has an outstanding team. Two very good baseball teams battled it out today
"I’m awfully proud of these kids. They showed a lot of fight all year. Our team has seen a lot of adversity. And they’ve hung in there. I think the way they played and the way they fought today exemplifies that."
The eventual game-winning hit came on the heels of a ninth-inning GSU rally that evened the score for the first time since the opening frame.
Eagles designated hitter Garren Palmer led off with a single, and slid safely into second when the Bulldogs mishandled a double-play attempt an at-bat later. Both runners advanced a base with a sacrifice bunt, and second baseman Tyler Avera drew an intentional walk to set up force outs around the diamond.
With bases loaded and just one retired, sophomore Brent Pugh drove a ball high into center that brought home Palmer and tied the game at 6.
But Eagles pitcher Jarret Leverett (4-2) couldn’t stifle the SoCon's highest-scoring offense for a second straight inning.
Samford hitters drew two walks and a hit-by-pitch to set up Stone’s hit in the ninth.
The loss leaves GSU with thoughts of what could have been. The Eagles left 12 men on base and couldn’t break through during run-scoring opportunities in the second, third and fourth innings.
"We had our chances," Hennon said. "(Samford) just played a little bit better than we did today."
GSU called on its ace, Chris Beck, to start Sunday’s title game. Beck delivered a gem one year ago in the same situation, throwing a three-hit shutout against Samford.
This time, the junior hurler didn’t fare as well.
The Bulldogs touched Beck, scoring four runs in the first two innings and running him from the game before the final out of the second had been recorded.
"It might have just been him trying to overthrow and do too much early," Hennon said. "And you have to give their hitters credit. They worked the counts and got good pitches to hit. They’re a very good team."
Trailing, 4-1, through five and a half innings, the Eagles made an initial push to tighten the gap, scoring a pair of runs in the fifth.
T.D. Davis roped a single into center to score the first, and Michael Burruss followed with a ground out to first to bring home another.
Up, 4-3, Samford responded with two runs of its own in the next inning, with run-scoring singles off the bats of Christiaan Durdaller and Stone.
GSU fought back again in the seventh, adding two more scores on a ground-out by Davis and a Burruss single.
The score remained 6-5 until the Eagle ninth.
"I thought that we might when it was at that point," GSU senior shortstop Eric Phillips said. "But we couldn’t capitalize on some of our chances."
"It is probably one of the best games we’ve played all year," Pugh said. "Unfortunately, we are the wrong side."
Samford ace Josh Martin (12-1) held the Eagles to three runs through six innings pitched. He was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
C.K. Irby (5-1) earned the win after coming on in relief and finishing the game.
GSU's Leverett was charged with the loss.
Eagles Justin Hess and Chase Griffin joined Avera and Palmer on the SoCon's All-Tournament Team.
Samford's Stone and Irby joined teammates Josh Martin, Austin Allison, Phillip Ervin and Brandon Miller on the SoCon's All-Tournament Team. Also selected to the team were Elon's Ryan Kinsella, and Furman's Chris Ohmstede and Taylor Johnson.
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.