GREENWOOD — If USC Aiken's baseball team plans to back up its regular-season Peach Belt Conference championship with a tournament title, it will have to do so through the losers' bracket.
The top-seeded and national No. 1 Pacers (41-10) lost 7-4 to No. 8 seed Montevallo (32-18) on Wednesday at Lander University.
Head coach Kenny Thomas said his team actually might have put too much pressure on themselves coming into the game. The Pacers have a chance to secure the host site for the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional but are perhaps the only team that can feel its spot in the regional is secure.
“We have to realize that we don't have as much pressure on us as everybody else here,” he said. “I thought tonight, we played intense, but we didn't play very smart at times.”
Starter Derek Beasley (9-1) took the loss for the Pacers after going 5 1/3 innings and giving up four runs – one earned – on five hits and a walk, but the usually solid Pacer bullpen didn't help matters.
Jake Padgett pitched a scoreless 1 1/3 innings, but Danny Wissmann, Sam Daniel and closer Taylor Grover each gave up a run to allow the Falcons to stay out front.
Montevallo starter Josh Clemen (5-3) picked up the win, tossing seven innings and allowing three runs, two earned, on four hits and two walks. Cody Hughes picked up his ninth save for the Falcons.
Thomas was impressed by Clemen's effort, comparing the performance to his outing against the Pacers in a 6-1 Falcon victory on March 30.
“He pitched exactly like he did down there when he beat us,” Thomas said. “He did a great job, no question about it.”
After the teams went scoreless over the first two frames, Montevallo struck for three runs in the top of the third inning. Will Fulmer reached on a one-out error by freshman shortstop Sean Miller, and Austin Dubberly followed with a single. Fulmer moved to third on a passed ball, and the Falcons' leading hitter, Vinny Rodriguez, brought him home with a single to left field. Montevallo added two more runs on a fielder's choice, errant third strike that would have ended the inning and a single.
“We really didn't play very well that inning,” Thomas said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Rodriguez went 3-for-4 on the night with an RBI and two runs to lead the Falcons' offensive effort.
The Pacers scored runs in the fourth and sixth innings, but the Falcons responded with a run each time and scored in each of the last three innings to stay out in front.
The sixth inning could have been a much bigger frame, but a bit of bad luck struck the Pacers. After Branden Millhouse reached on an error and advanced to second on a wild pitch, Josh Miller walked to give the Pacers runners on first and second with no outs. Bryce Baur hit a ball over the center fielder's head, but it went under the fence for a ground-rule double. Instead of the sure two runs that would have scored on the hit, the Pacers only got one, and a Ty Barkell strikeout and a double play ended the inning after a Bill Gerstenslager walk loaded the bases.
Thomas said that inning and the Falcons' three-run third altered the complexion of the game.
“You go back and change those two things, and it's a different ball game,” he said.
USCA got a chance at a big inning trailing 6-2 in the eighth when Millhouse and Josh Miller were on second and third with no outs, but all the Pacers could muster were a pair of sac flies and two runs.
Barkell was the only Pacer with multiple hits at 2-for-4 with an RBI and had a solid attack against Clemen despite the sixth-inning strikeout.
“His first two at-bats were really good,” Thomas said. “He had a better approach than just about anybody against the guy.”
The Pacers will now face UNC Pembroke in an elimination game today at 5 p.m., and Montevallo advances to play host Lander at 8:30 p.m.
Thomas said that he calmly tried to get his team to see that their mindset has to change for a do-or-die game today.
“It's not the end of the world,” he said. “Montevallo's got their backs to the wall, and they come out and played like they had their backs to the wall. We've got to have that mindset from here on out.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.