Within reach

Photo by Richard Shiro Citadel shortstop Johnathan Stokes catches a ball during the Southern Conference baseball tournament

Hughston Armstrong had the Appalachian State batter, left-handed Dillon Dobson, shaded around toward left-centerfield at picturesque Fluor Field.

The wrong way, as it turns out.

With a runner at first base and The Citadel clinging to a two-run lead in the ninth inning, Dobson yanked a line drive into the gap in right-center. Watching the ball off the bat, Citadel catcher Joe Jackson despaired.

“I didn’t think he’d get to it,” Jackson admitted.

Armstrong, a fleet-footed centerfielder from Columbia, wasn’t sure, either.

“Just run as hard as you can,” he told himself.

Sprinting about 100 feet to his left, Armstrong hurled himself into the air before snaring the ball just off the ground, while helpless Appalachian State runner Michael Pierson neared third. As Pierson was doubled up to end the game, the Bulldogs poured out of the dugout and raced toward center, to celebrate Armstrong’s amazing catch and an 8-6 win over App State.

“A phenomenal feeling to have the whole team come out,” said the 5-7, 165-pound Armstrong, who was lifted up on his teammates’ shoulders. “An adrenaline rush beyond what I could ever expect.”

An even greater rush awaits the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (35-24) if they can win today’s 2 p.m. SoCon championship game against No. 3 Elon.

Citadel coach Fred Jordan said he could go with either freshman Austin Livingston or senior ace Austin Pritcher to start today’s game. Pritcher threw 117 pitches in Wednesday’s 6-5 win over App State.

A title today would be The Citadel’s ninth in the SoCon tournament, eighth in 22 years under Jordan and first away from Charleston. And, ironically enough for a team that led the SoCon in runs, home runs and errors, the Bulldogs have done it this week with defense.

Armstrong’s catch was just the latest in a highlight reel of clutch defensive plays that included a leaping snare of a line drive by shortstop Johnathan Stokes, a run-saving stab of a pitch in the dirt by Jackson and three double plays.

And that was just Saturday. A 12-11 win over No. 1 Western Carolina on Thursday included an all-world double play started by Stokes and turned by second baseman Mason Davis, and Davis’ sliding catch of a foul ball near the right-field wall.

“Our Achilles heel,” Jordan called the Bulldogs’ defense. “We fought it all year long. Sometimes when you are little bit of an offensive club, you lose sight of the most important aspect of the game. Our guys refocused about three weeks ago, and since then they’ve fielded the ball really well.”

Offense is a constant with these Bulldogs, who are averaging 8.6 runs in the tournament. Davis led off the game with a homer and was 3 for 5 with two runs batted-in, while Jackson is batting a cool .777 with six runs and three RBI in three games. Bailey Rush doubled twice and hustled home with an important insurance run in the seventh.

The Citadel led 5-0 after two and 7-3 in the sixth before a three-run homer by ninth hitter Josh Zumbrook got App State (30-24) back into it at 7-6.

That’s where the Bulldog bullpen — guilty of blown leads in the first two games — came through.

With runners at second and third and one out in the eighth, reliever David Rivera struck out App State’s Nos. 2 and 3 hitters, both on checked swings. Closer Skylar Hunter worked the ninth for his 13th save, with help from Armstrong’s catch.

“We’ve been tagged a little lately,” Rivera said of the pen. “We told each other, we’ve done a lot this year to get to this point, and we just need to get back to basics. For me, that means I need to throw my slider and it needs to break, and that’s what I did.”

For the Bulldogs, it means another championship Sunday. Jordan is 7-3 in SoCon title games, the last win in 2010.

“They’ve worked from the first day of the fall to play on May 26,” Jordan said. “And we’re playing. That’s the No. 1 goal in our program. Now, they are there and all I’ll do is tell them to go out and play.”