Mercer coach Craig Gibson says Belmont is playing with “a little magic” on its side.
Maybe so, but on Friday a ninth-inning home run, a base-running mistake by Mercer and a heads-up observation by a Belmont assistant coach lifted the Bruins into the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference baseball tournament.
With a 6-4 victory over fourth-seeded Mercer at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field, Belmont became the first sixth seed to reach the championship round since Jacksonville in 2003. The Dolphins captured the crown that year but did not go undefeated in the event, an opportunity still available to the Bruins. The last No. 6 seed to win the title without a loss was former league member UCF in 1997.
Regardless, Belmont has two shots to capture its first A-Sun tournament title. The only team that made it through the first three days of the double-elimination event without a defeat begins the championship round 1 p.m. Saturday.
With their latest victory, the Bruins (35-24) matched the program-high for wins in a season and ran their current win streak to five games. Overall, they have won 10 of their last 13.
“Someone said it is inspired [baseball],” starting pitcher Nate Woods said. “I don’t know how to explain it. Everyone has come on at the right times. Confidence is huge right now.”
With the game tied at 4-4 and one out in the top of the ninth, Josh Davis singled off Mercer closer J.T. Odom. The Bears’ right-hander hadn’t allowed a hit in the previous six innings he had pitched in the tournament. With Davis on, he gave up another -- a two-out, two-run home run over the left-field wall by leadoff hitter Derek Hamblen. It was Hamblen's 11th of the season and the Bruins' third of the contest.
“Being a captain, I’m pretty proud of him. He really stepped up and hit that ball hard,” Woods, also a captain, said. “I’m glad it was him. He deserves it.”
Belmont closer Jon Ivie entered in the bottom of the ninth in search of his 12th save. The right-hander gave up two singles and faced Jacob Tanis with one out.
Mercer’s slugger flied out to deep right center for the second out. Pinch-runner Nate Moorhouse was at first but had rounded second base. He headed back in an attempt to avoid getting doubled off at first. As he did, Belmont first-base coach Aaron Smith realized Moorhouse failed to touch second base. Belmont successfully appealed the play when Davis, the first baseman, tagged Moorhouse, who was called out to end the game.
“What an outstanding job by [Smith]. He caught it, drew attention to it and I was able to get Jon Ivie’s attention and have him throw it to Josh Davis,” Belmont head coach Dave Jarvis said. “If the runner doesn’t retag at second and goes back to first, even though he is standing on the bag, he is still not safe because of the fact that he is actually a runner at second base.”
Mercer first-base coach Justin Holmes immediately disputed the call and was ejected by one of the umpires. He will not be able to coach – or even be in attendance of the Bears’ must-win game Friday night.
“The ump said [Moorhouse] didn’t retrace his steps, said he missed the bag. It’s his call. It’s his decision. He made the call he thought was right,” Gibson said. “It shouldn’t have come down to it. We had some chances early. We didn’t get it done. [Belmont] played well. They are hot and somebody has to beat the home team.”
Belmont trailed 3-1 before Matt Zeblo cranked a two-run homer to tie it in the sixth. The senior catcher has five hits, two home runs and six RBIs in three tournament games. The Bruins took the lead in the seventh on an RBI-groundout by Dylan Craig.
Mercer got the run back though when pinch-hitter Matthew Black delivered a two-out single to score Tanis in the eighth.
Garrett Fanchier (3-3) picked up the win, pitching 2 2/3 innings in relief of Woods. The senior right-hander allowed just one run on one hit with two strikeouts and two walks.
Mercer’s five pitchers allowed just seven hits and two walks. The crazy final out in the bottom of the inning failed to get Odom off the hook as the Bears (38-19) hope to repeat as tournament champions.
“That’s a tough way to go out. I feel for them,” Woods said of the last out. “But then again that is a great college baseball game and someone had to come out on top.”
• With an RPI of 78 Belmont will have to win on Saturday to reach its first NCAA Division I tournament.
The Atlantic Sun figures to receive at least two NCAA Tournament bids, maybe three. All six league tournament teams have an RPI that ranks in the top 90 – just one of four conferences in the country to stake that claim. It is the first time in league history that five teams have at least 35 wins.
Thus, the fact that a four seed and a six seed were playing on Friday for a trip to the championship game didn’t come as a shock to Jarvis.
“To me it is no surprise. I really think you can throw the seedings out of the window coming into this tournament,” Jarvis said. “I think it is indicative of the quality, the balance and the parity throughout the league this year.”
• Belmont is 17-5 in its last 22 games against league opponents. The Bruins started 3-8 in league play and had to win two of three against league-leading Stetson last weekend just to qualify for the six-team tournament, which they missed out on last year.