CHARLESTON, S.C. – The game didn’t end until 3:01 a.m., but for the fans that were there until the end, it was worth every minute.
The starting pitchers – Chris Beck of No. 4 seed Georgia Southern and Josh Renfro of No. 5 College of Charleston – combined for 16 innings of work, and the Eagles had just enough offense to escape with a 4-2 win early Thursday morning in the nightcap of the first round of the Southern Conference Tournament at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park.
The game began at 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning, after Elon and Western Carolina played a Southern Conference record 20-inning game.
The win placed the Eagles (33-23) in the winner’s bracket, where they will get a rest before playing No. 8 WCU at 9 p.m. Thursday. Charleston (36-21) fell to the loser’s bracket, where it will have a much shorter break. The Cougars face elimination against No. 1 seed Elon at 1 p.m.
Georgia Southern didn’t feel like playing another game after a short, 10-hour rest.
“That’s exactly what was going through our mind,” said GSU first baseman Steve Cochrane after the game. “It was just more incentive. Going to bed at, what time is it? Three o’clock in the morning right now? Then getting up and playing a one o’clock game? That’s not easy to do. I don’t care who you are. We’re really happy to be able to play the late game.”
Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Eagles put together a two-out rally to ice the win. The longest previous outing for Renfro (9-3) was 7.2 innings, and that was exactly when the wheels came off against the Eagles.
Eric Phillips dropped a bunt single down the third-base line to beat the throw from Charleston third baseman Matt Leeds, which went up the line and allowed Phillips to reach second base.
That brought Victor Roache, the Southern Conference Player of the Year, up to bat with first base open.
Renfro hit Roache square in the back with a 1-1 fastball to put runners on first and second with two outs and bring Cochrane to the plate.
Cochrane, who was hitless in his first three at-bats, smacked the first pitch he saw back up the middle to drive in Phillips for the game-tying run.
Then, GSU first-base coach Matt Rademacher had a bit of a premonition when designated hitter Michael Burruss stepped up to the plate.
“After I got that hit, [Rademacher] actually called the exact shot that Burruss hit,” said Cochrane. “He said, ‘He’s going to wrap one down the right-field line off the foul pole, and you’re going to score on a triple.’ And that is exactly what happened. One of those weird things that happens during the course of a two-in-the-morning game.”
The 0-1 pitch Burruss lined to the corner drove in Roache and Phillips and gave the Eagles a 4-2 lead.
Beck (8-4), a sophomore, was masterful in his SoCon tournament debut. He set a career high in innings pitched (8), pitches thrown (125) and strikeouts (13) while allowing only one earned run.
“I expected it, because I knew my team expected it out of me,” said Beck. “I expected what they gave me tonight, too. They never quit. Late in the ballgame, we’re still down 2-1 and they’re still putting on good at-bats. This was a team expectation – to come in and do this.”
“You go in hoping he can give you six or seven innings, and he gave us eight strong,” added GSU head coach Rodney Hennon. “He didn’t give in all night long.”
Charleston’s unearned, fourth-inning run, which came off of an RBI single by Marty Gantt, was the result of one of the two GSU fielding errors.
Gantt (3-for-4) also scored the go-ahead run in the seventh after doubling to lead off the frame.
After Beck finished the eighth inning, the SoCon pitcher of the Year got his ninth save of the season.
Georgia Southern closer Matt Murray struck out the first two batters he faced and got a popout to end the game just after 3 a.m.
“As soon as he got handed the ball,” said Beck, “I was like, ‘This ballgame’s over.’”
(8) Western Carolina 10, (1) Elon 7, 20 innings
Ross Heffley hit a two-run homer in the top of the 20th inning to finally shake things loose and propel No. 8 seed Western Carolina to a 10-7 upset-win over No. 1 Elon Wednesday at the SoCon tournament.
The game was the longest in conference history, lasting 20 innings and six hours, 33 minutes.
Heffley set an NCAA record with 10 at-bats in one game. Elon burned through eight pitchers while WCU used five.
(3) Samford 5, (6) Appalachian State 3
The sixth-seeded Appalachian State Mountaineers (31-26) scored three runs in the top of the first inning, but Samford (35-22) scored five unanswered runs and threw eight shutout innings as the Bulldogs advanced to the winner’s bracket in Game 2 of the Southern Conference tournament Wednesday.
The Mountaineers scattered five hits in the first inning, including a two-run double by Daniel Kassouf.
Samford scored one in the first, three in the fifth and one in the eighth, and was led at the plate by Philip Ervin (2-for-4, 2 RBIs).
Today, the No. 3 Bulldogs face Furman, the seven seed, today at 5 p.m.
(7) Furman 12, (2) UNC Greensboro 6
The 2011 Southern Conference started with an upset, as seventh-seeded Furman blasted out 12 runs on 17 hits to run away from the two seed, UNC Greensboro, 12-6 in the 9 a.m. opener Wednesday.
The Paladins (24-31) scored six times in the first three innings and sealed the deal with two more in the fifth on an RBI double by Will Muzika and an RBI single by Will Miller to go ahead 8-3.
Furman faces No. 3 Samford in the winner’s bracket today at 5 p.m., and Greensboro opens play in the loser’s bracket at 9 a.m. against No. 6 Appalachian State.
NOTES: Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon, then the head coach at Western Carolina, coached in the first-ever game at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, when The Citadel hosted WCU in the 1997 opener.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.