Sometimes, all it takes is some late inning magic especially when you get into postseason play.
Some late inning fireworks were what the top seeded Delta State University Statesmen needed against the eighth seeded University of West Alabama Tigers, as they scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth to win 6-2 in the first round of the Gulf South Conference Baseball Tournament here Sunday at Tim and Nancy Harvey Stadium at Dave “Boo” Ferriss Field.
DSU (39-8) will play North Alabama (31-18) tonight at 5 p.m., while West Alabama (20-26) will play fourth seeded Mississippi College (30-15) at 1:30 p.m. DSU will come back on Tuesday to play Mississippi College at a time to be announced, while West Alabama will play North Alabama Tuesday.
With the tournament in a pool play format, Delta State head baseball coach Mike Kinnison said getting that first win was huge.
“You can get out of the picture pretty quickly if you don’t win the first one,” Kinnison said. “It’s not any different than double elimination in that you need to win the first one to keep your hopes alive of advancing. It’s a little different format, so we’ll see what happens. We started slow, but we pitched well.”
DSU started the eighth on the right foot as Josh Russell stroked a leadoff single on a 3-2 pitch off of reliever Layton Dill. Russell moved to second after Justin Nussbaum laid down a beautiful bunt. The bunt set the table for Jason Popovich who tagged a single up the middle that scored Russell. Popovich ended up at second on a throwing error.
“He started the at-bat with a curveball,” Popovich said. “He came fastball in and I was looking curveball. He jammed me a little bit but it went right between his legs and I’m glad it did.”
The Statesmen got two more runners on base as Emil Ellis drew a walk and Brian Lane was hit by a pitch for the 24th time this season.
With the bases loaded, Zack Shannon came to the plate and he did some damage by tagging a two-run single that scored Ellis and Popovich to make the score 5-2. Delta State tacked on one more run as Matthew Majeur hit a ground ball that scored pinch runner Weber Herbison for the fourth and final run of the inning to give DSU a 6-2 lead.
Reliever Jason Lott (3-1) pitched a strong ninth as he gave up a hit but struck out the side to earn the win in relief. Lott tossed two shutout innings and gave up just one hit with four strikeouts and no walks. Dill (1-5) took the loss on the mound for West Alabama as he gave up two runs on four hits with two strikeouts and no walks in 1 1/3 innings of work. Christian Griffin relieved Dill in the eighth as he recorded two outs and gave up two runs on one hit with a strikeout and a walk.
The game started out as a pitcher’s duel between DSU’s Seth Birdsong and West Alabama’s JT Salter. The game was scoreless through the first three innings. Both teams had chances to score as West Alabama left four runners on base, while DSU stranded six. Birdsong recorded six strikeouts in the first three innings, while Salter struck out six.
In the middle innings, West Alabama dented the scoreboard first. Jonathan Thibodeau drilled a RBI-double in the top of the fourth and Ben Dalke tagged a single up the middle in the top of the fifth to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead.
Salter, a big 6-foot-8, 285-pound hard throwing junior right hander, held the Statesmen to just two hits in the first five innings. Delta State did work the counts and had base runners as Salter walked seven in those first five frames.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Statesmen finally did some damage. Nick Morgan tagged a leadoff single, and Russell drove him in with a RBI-double down the right field line to give Delta State its first run of the game. Russell ended up scoring the game tying run on a wild pitch to make the score 2-2.
On the evening, Salter gave up two runs on four hits with 11 strikeouts and seven walks over six innings of work in a 142-pitch effort. Salter faced 29 batters, which meant he threw an average of almost five pitches per batter (4.9). Out of those 142 pitches, 79 were strikes.
After giving up his second run in the fifth, Birdsong, a senior right hander who stands an imposing 6-foot-5 and weighs 255 pounds, tossed a scoreless sixth and a scoreless seventh to finish his night. Birdsong gave up two runs on six hits with 10 strikeouts, three walks and a hit batter in a 125-pitch, seven-inning effort. Out of his 125 pitches, 81 were strikes.
DSU’s defense didn’t commit any errors in the field, while West Alabama committed one miscue. DSU ended up out-hitting West Alabama 9-7.
“Birdsong and Lott pitched well,” Kinnison said. “We finally got the bats going but you have to give Salter credit. He’s tough, and we knew that. He’s got a lot of arm strength. He’s hard to square up. We played good defense and no errors.”
Birdsong felt he had everything working.
“I threw the strikes when I needed it,” Birdsong said. “I had my slider tonight. I felt like I could place my slider anywhere. Having my slider is a good thing because I can throw off of that. I can keep hitters off balance and then throw a fastball. I’ve got a fastball and a cutter. All of those pitches keeping them off balance is what helped me out tonight.”
Russell led DSU’s offense by going 3-for-4 including a double with a RBI and two runs scored.
Russell said everyone on the team took the best approach they could against West Alabama’s pitching.
“We knew coming in here Salter was going to fill up the zone and give us a tough battle at the plate,” Russell said, “but you’ve just got to stick with the approach and everything is going to end up working out for you in the end.”
Shannon drilled a hit and drove in two runs, Popovich tagged a hit, drove in a run and scored a run, Matthew Majeur nailed a hit and drove in a run, Nick Morgan drilled a hit and scored a run and Clay Casey and Lane tagged a hit each.
For West Alabama, Joel Murphy drilled four hits and scored a run, Thibodeau drilled a double and drove in a run, Dalke tagged a hit and drove in a run and Brock Montgomery tagged a hit to lead the Tigers.
Earlier in the day, Mississippi College beat fifth seeded North Alabama 8-4, third seeded West Florida beat sixth seeded West Georgia 6-3 and seventh seeded Lee upset second seeded Montevallo 10-4.
West Florida played Lee today at 10 a.m., while Montevallo will play West Georgia at 8:30 p.m.
On Tuesday, Montevallo will play West Florida and West Georgia will play Lee at times to be announced. The championship game is set for Wednesday.