Georgia Southern turned an inauspicious start to its Sun Belt season into a fun Friday night.
The Eagles squared off against South Alabama — one of two teams favored to finish ahead of Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt's eastern division — Friday night at J.I. Clements Stadium and quickly dug themselves a 5-2 hole. But a determines offense and a break or two along the way saw Georgia Southern score the game's final six runs to notch an 8-5 victory and a 1-0 start in league play.
“I liked the way we played tonight,” GS coach Rodney Hennon said. “We made some mistakes early, but we battled back. It's big to get the first (conference win) and we know that we have to come back tomorrow, ready to play again.”
Georgia Southern Friday night starter Even Challenger has struggled to find his groove this season and continued that trend against the Jaguars. The senior lefty went just 3.1 innings, allowing eight hits and four earned runs.
South Alabama did the brunt of its damage in the fourth inning. The Jags trailed 2-1 entering the frame, but Wells Davis, Brendan Donovan, Dylan Hardy and Hunter Stokes all singled — without an out recorded — to tie the game at 2-2. The Jags took the lead when Challenger dealt a bases-loaded walk to Andrew Cash.
Jacob Condra-Bogan relieved Challenger following the walk. The senior transfer allowed a two-run single to Travis Swaggerty as USA went up 4-2, but was otherwise solid in pitching 3.2 innings and striking out three to ultimately earn the win.
“Jacob gave us a good effort and kept us in the game,” Hennon said. “We made some big defensive plays and the bullpen did a great job. That kept us in the game and our bats brought us back.”
South Alabama stayed atop the Sun Belt standings throughout last season due in large part to its starting pitching. Randy Bell gave the Jags a good run, but was ultimately left in too long as the Eagles mounted a comeback.
Georgia Southern drew within 5-4 in the bottom of the fifth when Ryan Cleveland launched an RBI double off the wall in left center and Jordan Wren brought in Cleveland with a sacrifice fly.
The Eagles pressed ahead in the bottom of the seventh when Bell issued walks to Steven Curry and Cleveland around a Mitchell Golden groundout. Joey Jones relieved Bell and seemed to get the job done when he coaxed a fly ball to left from Wren, but the ball found open space and both Curry and Cleveland scored to give the Eagles a lead.
Georgia Southern padded its advantage in the eighth on a run-scoring balk and an RBI single by Curry.
“We've had some battles against (South Alabama) the last two years,” Hennon said. “We know that we have to be ready to battle anytime we play them. We know that tomorrow will be another tough fight.”
Landon Hughes took the mound for Georgia Southern in the ninth, converting his first save of the season and finishing in style with a strikeout of Eddie Paparella to end the game.
The Eagles and Jaguars will resume their conference series tonight at 6:30 p.m.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.