Wade Spees // The Post and Courier
Cougars left fielder Jose Rodriguez tries to track down a ball during Charleston’s first game Saturday against Georgia Southern at Riley Park.
The College of Charleston baseball team knew it had a major mountain to climb Saturday if it was going to get a shot at playing in the postseason for the second straight year.
Having lost to Georgia Southern in the Southern Conference tournament opener in the wee hours of Thursday morning, the Cougars would have to beat Georgia Southern twice Saturday to advance to today's SoCon championship game and reach the 40-win plateau that is considered the magic number for getting into the NCAA tournament.
The Cougars pulled off the first win against the Eagles, using the hit and run and bunting their way to a 9-1 victory to set up a decisive second game Riley Park. But in the rematch, Charleston (39-22) stumbled in the middle innings and fell behind by five runs, and Marty Gantt's grand slam in the eighth wasn't enough as the Eagles held on for a 7-6 victory.
Georgia Southern (35-24) faces Samford (37-22) today at 2 p.m. for the championship and the SoCon's automatic NCAA bid.
"I think it's going to be tough," Cougars head coach Monte Lee said when asked if the Cougars held any hope for an at-large bid. "I think it's a one-bid situation (for the Southern Conference). If we'd won the game today and gotten to 40 wins going into the championship, I think we would have had a better chance. You never know."
The Cougars, the top home-run hitting team in the SoCon this season, had to resort to small ball to beat the Eagles in the first game. Two bunts and a check swing single keyed the four-run fifth. The Cougars bunted twice, had a seeing-eye single and a double in the sixth to score four more.
After Georgia Southern ended Jake Zokan's shutout with a single run in the top of the eighth, catcher Rob Kral hit Charleston's second homer of the tournament in the bottom of the eighth for a 9-1 Cougars margin. Kral had three hits in that game, while Gantt, Cole
Rakar and Matt Leeds had two apiece. Zokan pitched eight full innings, giving up five hits while tying his career-high with seven strikeouts.
Charleston jumped on top in the second game with a two-run second, started by SoCon freshman of the year Daniel Aldrich, who ended an 0-for-13 slump in the tournament with a double off the left-field wall. He advanced on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on Rob Harding's chopper that went for a double. Gantt scored Harding and reached base on an error, but the Cougars stranded two runners.
Georgia Southern tied the game with two runs in the bottom of the third, added three in the fourth and put the game out of reach with two in the seventh.
But the Cougars, who had squandered some scoring opportunities along the way, did not roll over. Jamie Holler singled to lead off the eighth and Harding was hit by a pitch. Pinch-hitter Kolby Epley drew a walk to load the bases. After Georgia Southern brought in a relief pitcher, Gantt went opposite field over the right field fence for a grand slam, pulling Charleston within a run.
But that was all the Cougars could muster. Georgia Southern retired the side and then put the Cougars down in order in the ninth.
Gantt said the Cougars probably played their best all-around baseball of the season during the tournament, although they weren't able to put up the big offensive numbers. But the Cougars' pitching was solid.
"It's tough. We know we're a really good ball team and we didn't play every game (during the regular season) like we probably should have," Gantt said. "Our defense kind of hurt us all season, but I'm not sure the defense let us down today. I think we lost a little bit of focus in the middle innings and that led to them scoring some runs."
"Our guys fought hard and competed. Marty Gantt came up with a big grand slam to get us within one run. We just couldn't find a way to get a guy on base there in the ninth to bring the winning run to the plate," Lee said.
"To come back in the tournament the way we did after losing the first game, fighting as hard as we did, I'm proud of our guys for their efforts this week. If we could have gotten to tomorrow, who knows what would have happened. But it didn't happen for us and you have to give Georgia Southern credit. They deserved to win. They outplayed us."