Citadel tops UNCG to stay in SoCon tourney

Citadel players greet Austin Mapes (17) after his two-run home run in the eighth inning of Thursday night's 8-4 win over UNC Greensboro in the SoCon tournament. (SoCon photo)

With the help of a rare — and bizarre — triple play, The Citadel baseball team remained alive in the Southern Conference tournament on Thursday.

The Bulldogs bounced back from a Thursday morning loss to top seed Mercer to take an 8-4 win over No. 5 UNC Greensboro on Thursday night in the losers’ bracket of the double-elimination tournament.

The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (27-29) will have to win against either Mercer or VMI in an 8:30 p.m. Friday game, then win twice on Saturday to advance to Sunday’s title game.

The odds are long, but at least there’s a chance. UNCG (23-27), on the other hand, is going home without a win in a tournament game since 2008.

“The deeper you go in this survive-and-advance mode, the more confidence you gain, the looser you become,” said Citadel coach Fred Jordan, whose team is chasing its first SoCon tourney title since 2010 and ninth overall. “And in this game, loose is fast and fast is loose.”

Sophomore Austin Mapes drove in three runs, including a two-run home run in the eighth inning, and five Citadel pitchers held the Spartans in check on six hits.

But it was the weird triple play in the third — converted without a batted ball — that might have been the key to the game. The Spartans had already scored twice to knot the game at 2-2, and had runners at first and second with no outs when the Bulldogs turned just the third triple play in SoCon tourney history.

UNCG’s Hunter King struck out swinging, and Citadel catcher Ryan Kilgallen fired to first to catch one runner wandering off the bag. Stephen Windham threw to third baseman William Kinney to nab the second runner trying to make it to third.

“The triple play was a difference maker,” Jordan said. “It was one of the stranger ones I’ve seen, and it really got us out of a jam.”

It was a boost the Bulldogs needed after a tense, 3-2 loss to regular-season champ Mercer in the morning game dropped The Citadel into the losers’ bracket.

“Our guys battled hard today,” Jordan said. “That first game was a tension-packed game, and I was proud of the way our guys battled back.”

The 8:30 p.m. start on Friday will give the Bulldogs a chance to rest, and for Jordan and pitching coach Britt Reames to piece together a pitching plan. Senior lefty Kevin Connell pitched well in relief in both games Thursday, and will be available again Friday along with Zach Lavery, Austin Mason, closer Skylar Hunter and Zach Sherrill, who has not pitched in the tournament.

“It may be a situation where we bullpen it, just trying to get the ball back to James Reeves,” Jordan said. Reeves, the SoCon pitcher of the year, could be available Saturday after winning the play-in game against East Tennessee State on Tuesday.

Clutch hitting helped the Bulldogs score three runs and take a 6-3 lead over UNCG in the sixth. Mapes cranked a 2-out double off the wall in left for one run, and Johnathan Stokes rifled a two-run single to right.

Mapes blasted a two-run homer, his fifth, over the scoreboard in left for an 8-3 lead in the eighth. Jacob Watcher smacked a two-run double in the second, and Kinney tied it at 3-3 with an RBI single in the fourth.

Earlier Thursday, The Citadel lost to top seed Mercer by 3-2 to fall into the losers’ bracket. The Bulldogs jumped ahead in that game, as well, scoring single runs in the first and second for a 2-0 lead on Connor Walsh’s ninth homer and a sacrifice fly by Ryan Kilgallen.

But two walks and an error set up Mercer in the third, and Charlie Madden came through with a two-out, three-run double off the wall in right for a 3-2 Bears lead.

Citadel starting pitcher J.P. Sears (5-5) worked 5 1/3 innings and allowed three hits and three runs (none earned). He walked six and struck out a season-high 10.