MOUNT PLEASANT -- College of Charleston spotted The Citadel an early lead in the Southern Conference baseball standings way back in March, losing two of three to Samford while the Bulldogs swept Western Carolina on the opening weekend.
On Saturday night, the Cougars finally caught the Bulldogs, climbing into a virtual tie for first place in the SoCon with a 7-3 victory before 1,236 fans at Patriots Point Field.
College of Charleston pitcher Kevin Decker improved to 6-0 as the Cougars (35-12, 19-7) won their seventh straight to move within percentage points of The Citadel (29-19, 17-6) in SoCon standings.
The Bulldogs cling to first place by the slimmest of margins, with a .739 winning percentage to the Cougars' .731, heading into today's 1 p.m. series finale.
But the SoCon regular season title for the Bulldogs, which seemed all but secure when The Citadel was 16-2 in the league just two weeks ago, is in sudden jeopardy.
"Right now, the game is playing us a little tough," said Citadel coach Fred Jordan, whose team has lost three straight and four of five, including a 13-9 loss to the Cougars on Friday. "We hit some balls hard tonight in RBI situations that they made good plays on. And every mistake that we make is magnified, because they are doing a good job of capitalizing on it. We need to play clean baseball.
"You come over here hoping to win one of three, and now we've got one shot to do it."
Freshman Michael Clevinger (3-2, 6.44 ERA) will start for the Bulldogs today, with sophomore David Peterson (7-2, 4.79) slated to go for the Cougars.
Decker, a senior right-hander, kept his season record perfect by striking out eight and keeping the ball down, forcing the Bulldogs to ground out seven times. He gave up five hits and two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings, walking four, and reliever Josh Salay worked 2 1/3 scoreless innings for his first save.
"We threw extremely well," said Cougars coach Monte Lee. "Any time you give up just one run at a time and keep them out of big innings, that's key. And the four runs in the fifth were huge for us. At that point, you didn't know it, but it was enough to win the game because our guys threw so well."
Said Decker, "I felt I had everything working pretty well. In the early innings, I was dotting up fastballs and getting my changeup down. And when the slider came around, I had three pitches for strikes, and when you can do that, it's a lot easier.'
Junior Matt Talley, the Bulldogs' most effective starting pitcher of late with wins in his last three starts, handcuffed the Cougars on just one hit, a sharp single by Joey Bergman to start the game, through four innings.
But the 6-6 lefty walked a season-high four, including two free passes in the Cougars' four-run fifth, and dropped to 5-3 by allowing six hits and five earned runs in six innings, striking out four.
Down 1-0, the Cougars made Talley pay for a leadoff walk in the fifth, piling up four runs on two walks, an error and three hits, including RBI doubles from Cole Rakar and Matt Leeds.
Jesse Mesa started the inning with a walk and an easy steal of second, moving to third when catcher Grant Richards had to throw to first on Huston Dodds' strikeout. Mesa scored on Jamie Holler's groundout to knot the score at 1. And with two out, the Cougars added three more. Bergman walked and scored on Rakar's rocket double to left. Rob Kral's single brought home Rakar to make it 3-1, and Leeds lofted a wind-blown fly ball that Matt Simonelli could not handle at the right-field wall, scoring Kral to make it 4-1.
"We had some big two-out hits, and the bottom of our order did a nice job," Lee said. "Mesa got on base a couple of times, and when you have a guy like Talley, you have to take advantage whenever you can. Sometimes the running game can help you scratch a run here and there."
Decker, meanwhile, settled in nicely after surrendering a run in the second when Bryan Altman scored on a groundout.
Decker retired eight straight batters and 14 of 15 before Simonelli walked with two out in the sixth, scoring on Altman's double to cut the lead to 4-2. Justin Mackert put the tying runs on with an infield single, but Decker struck out Kyle Jordan to end the threat.
"He really got us to chase some pitches," Fred Jordan said. "They just outpitched us, and we gave them some runs on some non-typical things, and they took advantage."
Mesa caused trouble again in the sixth, drawing a one-out walk and racing to second when Mackert could not catch Talley's accurate pick-off attempt. Dodds' RBI single made it 5-2.
Decker hit a spot of trouble in the seventh, when an error, a walk and a close call at second on a fielder's choice loaded the bases with two out. Decker walked Simonelli to force in a run for 5-3, but Salay got out of it when Rakar tracked down an Altman blast on the warning track in center.
The Cougars added two insurance runs in the eighth on two hits and The Citadel's third error.