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On a roll
Josh Lairsey hot as Eagles open SoCon tourney play today
LAIRSEY 6 col bw
Senior left hander Josh Lairsey has won his last four starts for No. 6 seed Georgia Southern, which faces third-seeded Elon in the Southern Conference tournament today in Charleston, S.C. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file
    From the looks of it, Josh Lairsey is definitely doing something differently.
    To the delight of Georgia Southern coaches and players, the senior left hander has returned to his dominating ways, winning his last four starts and resembling the Lairsey Eagle fans saw during his freshman year in 2004.
    Back then, the young pitcher showed plenty of promise, starting seven games and posting a team-best 3.09 ERA, which ranked second in the Southern Conference. Lairsey’s success continued his sophomore season as he tallied eight wins, threw three complete games and struck out 75 batters in 112 innings pitched.
    But then came an unforeseen junior year, when the affable Waycross native tailed off, starting 16 games but failing to record a win over the final three months of the season.
    The trend continued early this year until something finally starting clicking. The upward swing began in late April with a midweek win over Georgia State, his first victory since February 2006, a span of 27 appearances. Lairsey has been on a roll since, leading the Eagles to wins over Davidson, The Citadel and Western Carolina.
    So surely he’s made a change, right? A tweak in his mechanics? A new pitch?
    Nope, says the senior. The only difference is mentally.
    “Every game is my last one — that’s the way I look at it,” Lairsey said. “I have to approach it like that.”
    Lairsey’s efforts will be crucial for the Eagles this week as GSU (33-26, 13-14) opens SoCon tournament play today in Charleston, S.C., with a 4 p.m. game against Elon (29-27, 15-12). His win over Western Carolina in the regular-season finale last Saturday helped the Eagles secure a No. 6 seed and avoid Tuesday’s play-in game.
    “We wouldn’t be in this position had he not (won four games) down the stretch for us,” said GSU coach Rodney Hennon. “It’s big for our team, and I’m especially happy for Josh — to see him really step up and throw the ball well. It’s been big. No question about it.”
    Hennon said the main difference-maker for Lairsey has been his ability to get ahead in the count and throw a lot of strikes.
    “Josh has really stepped up down the stretch here,” Hennon said. “He’s not hurting himself with walks and hit batsmen. He’s been able to throw all three pitches for strikes at any point in the count. He’s done a good job when he’s needed to pitch in with his fastball.”
    Third-seeded Elon took two of three from the Eagles in Statesboro in early April with both victories coming in one-run games. Lairsey is hoping Saturday’s win over Western will provide a key confidence boost for GSU.
    “Not having to play that play-in game is a relief for a lot of us,” he said. “We are trying to go in with a lot of confidence. We’ve got to keep throwing the ball the way we have, come out and get on top of them early and play Georgia Southern-style baseball.
    “I feel like the key for us to win the whole tournament is going to be having people day in and day out step up, especially out of the pitching staff. Guys who haven’t thrown much this year — someone is going to have to step up for us to go all the way with this thing.”
    Junior lefty Aaron Eubanks will take the mound for the Eagles today against Elon sophomore righty Steven Hensley. The winner will face the Western Carolina-The Citadel winner at 7:30 p.m. Thursday while the loser will play the WCU-Citadel loser at 1 p.m. Either Brian Wilkerson or Lairsey will start game two, depending on the matchup.
    “You are going to have two good pitchers going (today),” Hennon said. “Hensley is their best guy. He pitched pretty well against us here earlier in the year, and Eubanks pitched well against them in his start. It’s a good matchup from a pitching standpoint, and it’s just a matter of who goes out and executes the best.”
    The Eagles are much more comfortable with their bullpen than they were a year ago, and pitching is perhaps the most crucial component to winning the tournament. A.J. Battisto, David Cogswell and Kyle Kamppi have established themselves as the team’s top relievers.
    “We have three, four, even five guys we can turn to in the bullpen that we know will come out and give us a solid effort and give our team a chance to win,” Lairsey said.
    Said Hennon: “I feel good about our pitching going in. We’ve got several guys down there that are certainly capable and have proved they can do the job.”
    Notes: Senior outfielder Mike Economos is day-to-day after breaking his toe while sliding into second base during the series opener against Western Carolina last Thursday. He missed the final two games of the regular season but took batting practice Tuesday and could start or be used as a designated or pinch hitter today. Economos’ .329 batting average ranks second on the team…Senior right hander John Ducey is no longer with the team. Ducey suffered a shoulder injury and wasn’t retained once post-season rosters were trimmed to 25 players, Hennon said. Ducey transferred from Armstrong-Atlantic prior to this season and was a weekend starter earlier in the year.