The relief in College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee's voice was obvious after the Cougars rallied in the bottom of the 11th inning to earn a hard-fought, 12-11 victory over Appalachian State in Wednesday's opening game of the Southern Conference baseball tournament at Riley Park.
After jumping to a 7-2 lead through five innings, the Cougars watched as Appalachian State scored eight runs over the next three innings to forge a two-run lead. But senior Justin Brewer delivered a pinch-hit homer to open the bottom of the ninth and Cole Rakar singled in Baker Knox to send the game into extra innings.
After a scoreless 10th, the Mountaineers scored in the top of the 11th, once again forcing the Cougars' offense to respond. Brewer drew a walk to open the Cougars' half of the 11th, Knox reached on an error and Joey Bergman's single scored pinch runner Thomas Brittle and tied the score. Appalachian State walked Cole Rakar to load the bases, then Rob Kral singled into right field to end the game.
Senior Owen Brittle (1-1) picked up the win, pitching the final 3 2/3 innings. He allowed three hits and one run. Appalachian State's Chris Patterson (3-3), who had a 0.96 ERA this season and had allowed only six runs, was charged with the loss after being tagged for six hits and four runs, three earned.
Bergman, Rakar and Jamie Holler all drove in three runs. Bergman, Rakar and Brewer all homered.
"Game 1 in any tournament you're playing is the biggest game that you can play. You can carry momentum from that for the rest of the week. It's an uphill battle if you don't win Game 1," Lee said.
"I'm awfully proud of our guys to play as early as we did (9 a.m. start), to play for four hours and 15 minutes, to stay in the game for 11 innings, and to battle back the way we did against arguably the best reliever in the conference (Chris Patterson)."
Less than two weeks ago in Boone, N.C., the College of Charleston held Appalachian State to a total of seven runs in sweeping the three-game series, Charleston's final conference series of the season.
But the Mountaineers quickly showed they were going to give Charleston fits. Hector Crespo slammed Kevin Decker's second pitch over the left field wall.
The Cougars evened the score in their half of the first when Bergman, Charleston's leadoff batter, hit a shot to deep center that ASU outfielder Tyler Zupcic got a glove on. But the ball bounced off Zupcic's glove and over the wall for a home run.
Charleston looked to be in control after scoring three runs in the second, two in the third and another in the fifth. That's when Appalachian State caught fire offensively and turned the momentum.
"Pitching-wise, our bullpen didn't do what they have been doing for us," Lee said. "We gave up a few runs in the sixth, the seven and the eighth. We just couldn't hold them down. But that's momentum in baseball. Their guys were able to relax and take better swings."
While Cougars fans may have been chewing their nails, the players were not worried.
"We never think we're out of a game," Brewer said. "We've had a lot of comeback wins this year. Whenever we have outs left, we know we have a chance. We never really get down. We always stay positive."
After tying the game in the bottom of the 11th, the Cougars took full advantage of a bases-loaded, one-out situation to put the game away.
"I knew he was going to come right at me," said Kral, who hit a sharp single into the right-field corner to end the game. "I wanted to try and get it done early. I didn't want to get in a bad count. If I saw anything over the plate, I knew it had to get into the outfield and find a hole. I was trying to put a good swing on it and fortunately I did.
"I was so relieved. It felt good to get the game-winning hit after a pretty poor day at the plate. It was good I could come through for my team."
"I give our guys a lot of credit for continuing to compete as hard as they did," Lee said. "It's a heck of a group when it comes to their competitive spirit. I'm awfully proud of them."