Citadel survives, faces top seed Mercer

Citadel pitcher James Reeves (28) fires a pitch to ETSU's Jeremy Taylor (6) during the SoCon Baseball play-in game Tuesday. The Bulldogs won the game 8 to 2. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 5/19/15

A pitcher of the year award combined with a win-or-else start piled up postseason pressure on Citadel junior James Reeves on Tuesday morning in the Southern Conference baseball tournament.

“I was not concerned, but just hoping James would have his ‘A’ game today,” said Bulldogs coach Fred Jordan. “You win that award and then get put in this pressure-packed situation, a lot of times you can have a tough outing.”

Reeves, an easy-going left-hander from Ashley Ridge High School, handled the situation with poise. The 6-3, 200-pounder worked seven innings in the Bulldogs’ 8-2 play-in game win over East Tennessee State before 748 fans at Riley Park, scattering seven hits while walking only one and striking out eight.

His relatively easy 93 pitches left open the possibility that Reeves (8-3), named the SoCon pitcher of the year this week, could pitch again Saturday or Sunday, depending on how far the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (26-28) can advance in the double-elimination portion of the tournament. Freshman J.P Sears will take the mound for The Citadel at 5 p.m. Wednesday against regular-season champion Mercer.

“It was a great outing for James,” Jordan said. “And who knows, maybe we’ll be able to use him again.”

The Citadel staked Reeves to a 3-0 lead in the fourth, then broke open the game with five runs in the seventh. Reeves escaped trouble in the seventh, stranding runners at second and third, and closer Skylar Hunter pitched the final two innings to preserve the victory.

“It feels good,” said Reeves, whose 111 strikeouts this season is 10th in Citadel history. “Now, we’re dancing in the tournament, and we’ll see what happens. This was definitely a big win for us.”

Stephen Windham and Steven Hansen each drove in a pair of runs for the Bulldogs, who are now 8-3 in May. Windham also scored twice, as did Jacob Watcher and William Kinney as the Bulldogs piled up 11 hits.

“The offense came out hot late, and we played pretty good defense,” Reeves said.

Reeves pitched a no-hitter against No. 1 seed Mercer (31-21) on April 2, and Sears had a decent outing in the second game of that series, losing 4-3. The 5-11, 170-pound lefty from Sumter allowed 10 hits and four runs, but walked only one and struck out seven in that game. Mercer won the third game of that series, 17-0, a score Jordan would rather forget.

“They are pretty good,” Reeves said. “But if J.P. brings his ‘A’ game, he’ll be all right. Any pitcher can beat anyone on any given day.”

No. 9 seed ETSU will head home as Bucs coach Tony Skole, a former Bulldogs player, ends his debut season in the SoCon with a 21-35 record. Starting pitcher Jimmy Nesselt kept ETSU in it, leaving the game trailing 3-2 with a runner on in the seventh. But reliever Lee Haeberle did not get an out in the inning, surrendering two singles to load the bases and a walk to force in the first of five runs. Johnathan Stokes and Windham followed with RBI singles against reliever Griffin Krieg. Windham’s hit brought in two runs, and Drew Ellis doubled home the fifth run for an 8-2 lead. Stokes’ single was his 200th career hit.

Citadel closer Hunter, who has 12 saves, began warming up when the score was 3-2 and pitched the final two innings, throwing 22 pitches. Jordan said he would be available against Mercer.

“It was 3-2 when he started warming him up, and once we heated him up …” Jordan said. “But he threw minimal pitches, and really he’s better the second day he pitches, because sometimes he’s too alive that first day.”

First, Sears will have to get the Mercer game to Hunter, which won’t be easy against the Bears, who won the regular-season title after coming into the SoCon from the Atlantic Sun. Mercer is led by SoCon player of the year Kyle Lewis, a sophomore outfielder who hit a league-best .386 with 16 home runs and 50 RBIs.

“J.P. will do what he does,” Jordan said. “If he throws strikes and moves the ball in and out, he’ll keep us in the game. We’ll try to shorten the game and get into the seventh inning.”

That’s the formula the Bulldogs will have to follow if they hope to become the third team seeded eighth or lower to win the SoCon Tournament in its 32-year history. No. 8 Furman went 4-0 to win the title in 2005, and No. 8 Wofford was 5-0 en route to the championship in 2007.

“Hopefully,” Reeves said, “we’ll be playing on Sunday and I’ll be able to pitch again in that game.”