MOUNT OLIVE, N.C. — For the second day in a row, the USC Aiken baseball team played a walk-off game in the Southeast Regional of the Division II NCAA Baseball Championship. Unlike Thursday's thrilling 11-7 win, capped off by Josh Miller's grand slam, the Pacers weren't celebrating at the end of this one.
USCA came up on the short end of a pitcher's duel against Coker, falling 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning of Friday's game at Scarborough Field on the campus of Mount Olive College. The defeat leaves the Pacers (42-12) one loss away from the end of their season. They'll put that on the line today in a game against Georgia College – the team they beat with Thursday's walk off. First pitch in today's elimination game is scheduled for 3 p.m., with the winner advancing to play again at 7 p.m. against the loser of the game between Coker and Mount Olive.
“We didn't do much offensively. We had opportunities to score runs and didn't,” USCA head coach Kenny Thomas said. “There's not a lot you can say. We just got beat. It's a tough deal. We didn't play bad but we just didn't hit when we had opportunities.”
Unlike Thursday, when Miller was showered with affection from his teammates for his game-winning blast, he had a much different reaction at the end of the loss to Coker (36-14). After Taylor Grover walked in the game-winning run, Miller spiked the ball to the ground in disgust as he headed off the field. It might have been because of the way the game ended, it could have been about all of the Pacers missed opportunities and it certainly had something to do with the precarious position they now find themselves in.
Grover, who has been so good this season and as sure of a thing as any pitcher coming out of a bullpen in this weekend's regional, struggled mightily and didn't record an out against the three batters he faced. He came on in relief of starting pitcher Derek Beasley (9-2) who took the loss in spite of a tremendous effort.
“Derek Beasley pitched his heart out; he pitched a great game,” Thomas said. “He deserved better.”
In nine innings, Beasley surrendered just one run on five hits and two walks while recording six strikeouts. But he was tagged by Coker first baseman Fico Kondla for a double to lead off the 10th inning.
That was enough for Thomas, who entrusted Grover with the responsibility of putting out the fire and giving his team another chance to score. But Grover was wild and proceeded to issue a walk to Ernie Kirkwood, who was trying to sacrifice himself and bunt Kondla to third. The next batter, Frank Suarez, also showed bunt but didn't get the chance as Grover loaded the bases by hitting the Coker catcher in the back with his pitch.
That brought up the Cobras' No. 9 hitter, shortstop Shea Bell. With the count at two balls and a strike, Grover averted disaster – briefly – when a wild pitch ricocheted off the backstop to Miller at home plate, freezing the runners. But ball four a moment later sealed the Pacers' fate and the Coker walk-off win.
“We go to Grover, he faces three batters and throws one strike,” Thomas said of the decision to remove Beasley after 106 pitches for Grover, who he liked because of his athleticism for potentially fielding a bunt. “I'm in shock, total shock. Grover came in, and we depend on him so much and have confidence in him.”
While Grover's ineffectiveness was a surprise, the strong showing from Coker reliever Zach Loraine wasn't. The only thing that was unusual about Loraine's appearance in back of starter Tyler Witzel was its length. The Cobra's relief ace tossed 3 1/3 scoreless innings, surrendering one hit and one walk while striking out six.
“They brought their guy in,” Thomas said of Loraine (5-2). “Give their guy credit. We knew he was good. We knew they were going to use him; we just couldn't get to him.”
USCA had a golden opportunity to get to Loraine in the ninth inning. Tyler Moore (2-for-4) led off the inning with a single, the only hit Loraine allowed. With Sean Miller showing bunt, Moore moved into scoring position on his own by stealing second. With two strikes, Sean Miller tried to bunt Moore to third but tapped it foul for a strikeout. Undeterred, Moore got there on his own with another stolen base.
“We just needed to get the ball in outfield,” Thomas said of the situation that saw Branden Millhouse (2-for-5) trying to knock Moore home. It didn't work out as he struck out, followed by a strikeout by Josh Miller to end the inning and strand Moore. “We struck out a lot, but give their guy credit. We were outpitched in the end.”
Coker broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth on Kondla's two-out RBI-single. That at-bat was what Thomas said was Beasley's only bad pitch of the night to the Coker first baseman, who nearly ended the game with a walk-off homer in the 10th, but settled for a double when his blast bounced off the left-center field fence.
The Pacers could've been in a deeper hole in the fourth if not for the fine defensive play of center fielder Bryce Baur. He prevented two additional runs in the inning. Baur gunned down T.J. Giczkowski at the plate for the final out after trying to score from second on Kondla's hit. Earlier in the inning, Baur's throw to the plate on Giczkowski's single caught Brinley Griffin in a rundown between third and home.
USCA tied the game in the top of the sixth as Josh Miller (2-for-5) led off with a double off the wall in left-center field and advanced to third on a groundout. Bill Gerstenslager drove in Miller with a single through the left side.
But that was all the scoring the Pacers could muster, in spite of out hitting the Cobras 10-6. Now they're in a do-or-die position.
“I'd rather not be in that position,” said Thomas, who isn't looking past the rematch with Georgia College after its 12-0 trouncing of Lincoln Memorial. “Our first task is to play Georgia College again. We've got to get ourselves ready to go against a team that is hot and playing well.”
Thomas is putting the ball in the hands of Wyatt Brown (6-4, 4.90 ERA), who he said he needs to pitch well. He'll likely square off against Matt Lamothe (8-4, 4.80).
“I'm sure they're loaded with confidence,” Thomas said of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament champions. “We need to get our confidence back. Who knows, maybe having our back to the wall is good. We'll find out at 3 o'clock.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.