GREENVILLE — A week of clutch home runs and spectacular catches built to this moment for The Citadel on Sunday afternoon.
Native son Joe Jackson, heir to this town’s own baseball legend, was at the plate with two on and two out in the eighth inning. His Bulldogs were down by one run to Elon in the Southern Conference championship game.
All Jackson had done to that point in the tournament was bang out 10 hits in 12 at-bats, reach base 18 of 19 times at the plate and win the first game with a ninth-inning home run. On Sunday, he was 3 for 3 with a double and a triple and two RBIs.
Citadel fans, who made up most of the 1,432 at Fluor Field, rose to their feet as Elon coach Mike Kennedy fretted in the dugout.
“He’s the best player in this league, by far, and we hadn’t gotten him out,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t want to walk him there, but we didn’t want to give him anything to square up either.”
Elon’s lefty reliever, Spencer Medick, started Jackson out with a curveball wide and a fastball for a strike, then threw four straight breaking balls. Jackson took all of them, the last one a bender on the outside corner for strike three.
Medick struck out three more in the ninth to seal Elon’s 6-5 win, but the Joe Jackson moment was the key to the Phoenix’s second SoCon tourney title and first since 2008.
“We know how dangerous Jackson is, he’s been electric in the tournament,” Medick said. “We didn’t want to give him anything to hit. He’s been seeing the ball real well, and I was surprised he didn’t take a hack at it. He’s a tough out.”
Jackson, the great-great-great nephew of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, was disappointed he did not take a swing during the crucial at-bat.
“He just threw a really good pitch,” said Jackson, who hit .769 and reached base 18 of 20 times while becoming the first player from a losing team to win the tournament MVP award. “The curveballs before that were really sharp, and that last one kind of hung and fooled me a little bit. Not a great at-bat, but I’ve got to live with it.
“I’m definitely a little mad at myself that I didn’t get a swing. But he made a good pitch, and you’ve got to tip your cap.”
Third-seeded Elon (32-28) showed grit in becoming the first team since Furman in 1991 to win the SoCon tourney after losing the first game. The Phoenix trailed in every game, but won five straight to claim the automatic bid to the NCAA regionals.
Elon senior Kyle Webb, making his third appearance of the tourney, muffled the Bulldogs’ offense through six innings, leaving with a 6-2 lead. The Citadel’s own ace, SoCon pitcher of the year Austin Pritcher, worked on three days’ rest and got knocked around for six runs (five earned) in 22/3 innings.
“I felt I had my normal stuff,” Pritcher said. “But the ball was leaking over the plate a little bit and Elon took advantage of it.”
The Citadel’s defense, sparkling during the week, let Pritcher down Sunday. Third baseman Bailey Rush could not track down a two-out foul ball in the second, and Elon’s Sebastian Gomez cashed in with a two-run single for a 5-1 lead.
In the third, a wild throw by shortstop Johnathan Stokes helped Elon score an unearned run for a 6-1 edge.
Reliever Logan Cribb gave The Citadel a chance with 32/3 innings of scoreless ball, and the Bulldogs battled back. Tyler Griffin’s bloop double scored two in the fifth to make it 6-3, and an RBI triple by Jackson and an RBI double by Griffin cut it to 6-5 in the seventh.
But Citadel coach Fred Jordan was left to stare grimly at Elon’s celebration and ponder a season in which his team was picked to finish eighth and nearly won it all.
“It’s tough,” said Jordan, in his 22nd year. “But I can’t question this club at all, the year that they had. We were picked to finish anywhere from eighth to 10th in this league. We’re a young club, and hopefully we’ll be standing back out here again with those championship T-shirts on.”
Total attendance for the tournament was 8,810, including 1,432 for the title game.
Pitchers: Kyle Webb, Elon; Justin Hess, Ga. Southern; Relief pitcher: Dylan Clark, Elon; C: Joe Jackson, The Citadel; 1B: Ryan Kinsella, Elon; 2B: Hector Cresp, App State; 3B: Tyler White, Western Carolina; OF: Tyler Griffin, The Citadel; Sebastian Gomez, Elon; Julian Ridings, Western Carolina; DH: Bo Thompson, The Citadel.
Most Outstanding Player: Joe Jackson, The Citadel.