All of the sudden, The Citadel is just a doubleheader sweep of Mercer away from the Southern Conference championship game.
The eighth-seeded Bulldogs rode back-to-back homers from Drew Ellis and Steven Hansen to a 10-5 win over No. 4 VMI on Friday night at Riley Park, taking them from Tuesday’s play-in game to the semifinal round of the SoCon tournament.
The Citadel (28-29 overall and 3-1 in the tourney) has to beat No. 1 seed Mercer twice Saturday to advance to Sunday’s title game. Mercer and The Citadel will meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday; should the Bulldogs win, the second game will be at 8:30 p.m.
“We’ve shown heart all year,” said Citadel closer Skylar Hunter, who pitched the final two innings for his 13th save. “We had a rough month during the season, but we’ve shown a lot of heart at the end of the season and in this tournament.”
No. 3 seed Wofford and No. 2 Samford will meet in the other semifinal bracket, with Wofford needing two wins to advance.
Mercer, the regular-season champion after moving over from the Atlantic Sun, is 3-0 in the tourney after a 19-7 win over VMI on Friday. Coach Craig Gibson said senior right-hander D.J. Johnson (1-3, 7.40 ERA) will start Saturday’s game against The Citadel.
Bulldogs coach Fred Jordan could have SoCon pitcher of the year James Reeves ready to start Saturday. The left-hander from Ashley Ridge High School threw 92 pitches in an 8-2 win over East Tennessee State in Tuesday’s play-in game.
“Our arms are tired, but we’re still going to compete,” Jordan said of his pitching staff. “We were going to rest two of them tonight, but they said no way, they want to compete. We’ll see (about Reeves); he’s pushing me, but we’ll see what happens.
“There’s a lot of grit, a lot of heart in our guys and hopefully we’ll show up at 12:30 and play well.”
Trailing VMI by 5-2 in the sixth, the Bulldogs scored four times thanks to the long ball and to small-ball. The Citadel went back-to-back as Ellis hammered a two-run homer to right and Hansen followed with a solo shot to left to tie the score at 5-5. Ryan Kilgallen reached on a bunt single, was sacrificed to second and scored on William Kinney’s single through the right side for a 6-5 lead.
Ellis, a 6-4, 225-pound freshman, scored from first on Hansen’s double into the right-field corner for a 7-5 lead in the seventh. Connor Walsh’s RBI single and a run-scoring double from Ellis broke the game open at 10-5 in the eighth.
“Drew was very good the first six weeks, and then he had his first slump in college baseball,” Jordan said. “We sat him down for two weeks and he didn’t like that, but he’s getting his stride back.”
Making his first college start, Citadel freshman Jacob Watcher — all 5-9 and 150 pounds of him — made it through four innings with a 2-1 lead.
But the Keydets (21-30), who led the SoCon in home runs and stolen bases in league games, roughed him up for four runs in the fifth. Three straight singles tied the score at 2-2, and No. 9 hitter Jacob Jaye — in for injured all-SoCon shortstop Jordan Tarsovich — belted an RBI double to right-center for a 3-2 lead.
That chased Watcher, but VMI’s Ray Lopez greeted reliever Zach Lavery with a bloop single to right that scored two more runs for a 5-2 lead.
Watcher ended up allowing five hits and five runs (four earned) in four innings, walking none and striking out five. Lavery, Austin Mason and Kevin Connell combined for three innings of scoreless relief.
“Jacob was the hero of the day,” Jordan said.