This has been a season of change in the Southern Conference. On Thursday alone, Elon announced its intention to leave for the Colonial Athletic Association, and College of Charleston played — and lost — its last two games as a SoCon member.
But amid the change, a familiar theme has emerged this week in Greenville. The Citadel’s baseball team is in the hunt for its ninth SoCon tournament title.
After a thriller of a 12-11 victory over No. 1 seed Western Carolina on Thursday night at Fluor Field, the fourth-seeded Bulldogs — picked to finish eighth in the league — are two wins away from that championship. It comes with an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals.
Tyler Griffin slugged a three-run home run for a 12-9 lead in the sixth inning, and the 34-24 Bulldogs hung on to earn an off day today in the double-elimination tournament.
“The boys played well,” Citadel coach Fred Jordan said. “I’m very proud of each of them ... Everyone played their part.”
The Citadel will play again at 10 a.m. Saturday; a win in that game puts the Bulldogs into Sunday’s championship contest.
Western Carolina (39-19), which has split four one-run games with The Citadel this season, falls into the losers’ bracket. The Catamounts face a 3 p.m. elimination game today against No. 5 Appalachian State, a 2-1 winner over No. 8 Samford.
“The Bulldogs and the Catamounts don’t go out to dinner too often,” Jordan said of WCU, which has won nine SoCon tourneys. “But it was a great ball game tonight, and we were fortunate enough to get the win.”
Against WCU, which had won 17 of its last 18 games against league foes,
The Citadel built an 8-3 lead through five innings. The Bulldogs blew all of it and more, and then rallied again with four runs — three on Griffin’s homer — in the sixth for a 12-9 lead.
“Everyone is playing their part,” said Griffin, who drove in four runs. “We’re not having to rely on one person. Everybody has their job, and today everyone played their role and got the job done.”
Indeed, shortstop Johnathan Stokes also drove in four runs and made a key defensive play. Calvin Orth drove in two runs, Bo Thompson had three hits and scored three times, and unstoppable catcher Joe Jackson was 2 of 3 and scored three times.
WCU slashed the lead to 12-11 in the eighth on a two-run homer by Jacob Hoyle, his second of the game. Stokes made a diving stop behind second base and flipped to second baseman Mason Davis, who made a barehanded catch and turned the double play to escape the inning with the lead intact.
“I just wanted to make the play for my pitcher,” Stokes said.
Relievers Ross White and Skylar Hunter, who gave up a two-run homer in the ninth of Wednesday’s 6-5 win over App State, retired the Catamounts in order in the ninth. That made a winner of reliever James Reeves (2-1), the chief victim of WCU’s six-run sixth.
The Citadel scored three times in the fourth, on singles by Jackson, Thompson, Orth and Stokes, for a 3-1 lead.
Western Carolina answered with two runs in the top of the fifth to tie the score, but the Bulldogs seemed to blow it open with five in the bottom of the inning.
Hughston Armstrong doubled down the right-field line and scored on an error by WCU first baseman Jacob Hoyle. Griffin’s single through the right side scored Jackson, and Stokes came through with a two-out, three-run double to left-center for an 8-3 lead.
But WCU, leading the nation in home runs, came right back with six runs in the sixth, including a grand slam from Tyler White, for a 9-8 lead.
Jackson tied it at 9-9 in the sixth with an RBI double, and Griffin’s three-run homer — his 12th of the season — made it 12-9.