CHARLESTON, S.C. — Make no mistake about it, the Southern Conference baseball tournament is wide open. Sixth-seeded Georgia Southern rallied late to stay alive Thursday, knocking off No. 2 seed Western Carolina 6-5 in an elimination game at Riley Park. The Eagles’ come-from-behind victory followed fourth-seeded Appalachian State’s 11-10 upset of top-seeded College of Charleston. It’s the first time in tournament history the top two seeds went two-and-out.
The Eagles advance in the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination tournament and will face No. 5 UNC Greensboro this morning at 10.
“We are feeling pretty confident, and now we are trying to get on a roll,” said Georgia Southern catcher Griffin Benedict, who had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth. “In the tournament it’s just a matter of who gets hot at the right time. We have a lot of confidence in each other, a lot of confidence in our starting pitching and our depth in the lineup. We’re looking forward to (today).”
Benedict’s one-out single up the middle brought home Jeremiah Parker, who reached on a leadoff walk. It was the first hit of the tournament for the sophomore.
“I got a fastball away, and I was lucky to get just enough of it,” Benedict said. “I hadn’t done anything in the previous at-bats, and I’m just lucky to be able to help my team out.”
Trailing 5-2 in the eighth, GSU’s Chris Shehan cut the deficit to two with a two-out RBI double to the right-field corner, scoring A.J. Wirnsberger, who was on board after a one-out single. Mike Economos followed with the game-tying hit, a two-run single to left – his first hit of the tournament – to bring home Kyle Blackburn, who reached on a walk, and Shehan.
Senior left hander Josh Lairsey kept the Eagles (33-28) in the game with 6 1/3 solid innings, and senior reliever A.J. Battisto (4-0) tossed 2 2/3 shutout innings of relief to earn the win.
“It was a great team effort, and Lairsey gave us a great effort with tough conditions to pitch in today with the way the wind was blowing out to right,” GSU coach Rodney Hennon said. “He hung in there and we hung around. Battisto picked us up out of the bullpen, and we were just able to string together some big two-out hits.”
Parker led off the second with his fifth home run in three games, a solo shot to right to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead. The junior first baseman leads the team with 13 bombs on the year.
The Cats tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the third on Donnie Wilson’s RBI double to the left-field corner and took the lead in the fourth when left fielder Jonathan Greene bounced a 1-2 pitch off the video board in right center for his 13th home run of the year. Right fielder Steven Strausbaugh made it 3-1 one batter later with a two-out solo bomb to right, and the Catamounts went ahead 5-2 after four consecutive singles in the seventh.
Eagle center fielder Matt Miller cut Western’s lead to 3-2 with a solo shot to right in the bottom of the fourth, his fourth homer this season.
“The biggest thing today was just winning that first game and getting ourselves to Friday,” Hennon said. “Now we’ve got to get ready for that 10 a.m. Friday, try to win two (today) and make it to Saturday.”
Freshman right hander Brian Wilkerson is slated to start for GSU this morning.
Notes: Economos was named to the All-SoCon second team by the league’s sports media association Thursday…Former Eagle football great Tracy Ham gave the team a pep talk prior to Thursday’s game. Ham quarterbacked the Eagles to their first two Division I-AA national titles in 1985 and ‘86…Former Georgia Southern pitcher Dustin Evans was also on hand Thursday. Evans, a second-round pick by Atlanta in the 2006 MLB draft, is with the Braves Class A affiliate, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The Pelicans had a day off Thursday, so Evans made the two-hour trip to cheer for his former teammates. Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.