Belmont’s battery was front and center on Thursday.
Chase Brookshire hurled a complete game and catcher Matt Zeblo provided the offensive bang as the sixth-seeded Bruins eliminated No. 3 seed Kennesaw State with a 4-1 victory on the second day of the Atlantic Sun Conference baseball tournament at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field.
Belmont (34-24) became the first No. 6 seed in 11 years to start the A-Sun tournament with two victories. Overall, the Bruins have won four straight and nine of their last 12.
They advanced in the winner’s bracket to play either Jacksonville or Mercer at 11 a.m. on Friday. A win would land the them in their first A-Sun tournament championship game since 2007. They never have won the A-Sun tournament title.
“We have nothing to lose. We plan on winning this thing,” Belmont coach Dave Jarvis said. ”That is our approach and we just have to go about our business and get the job done.”
Brookshire, a sophomore, barely missed his first shutout when he yielded a run with two outs in the ninth. But with Brookshire's pitch count riding high, two runners on and the game-tying run coming to the plate, Jarvis stuck with him. The 6-foot, 190-pound left-hander rewarded his coach’s confidence when he got a groundball out to end the game.
“When you’re in a situation like that, you just want to finish it yourself,” Brookshire, a Chattanooga native, said. “I’m a little disappointed [about losing the shutout] but I can’t complain. In the end, we just want to win.”
Brookshire (5-4), the only pitcher who stayed in Belmont’s weekend starting rotation all season, scattered eight hits, worked around four walks and struck out three. He tossed 127 pitches but Jarvis said because “we don’t push our pitchers throughout the course of the season that high so at that point it gives them a little more extra.”
“He was in the zone all day long,” Zeblo said. “He made big pitches when we needed them — throwing it in and out wherever he wanted to in any count all day long. ... I’m just glad to have him on my team. I absolutely wanted him in there [at the end]. There is nobody else I’d rather have out there. His stuff was great in the ninth inning and it was the best option in my opinion.”
Zeblo gave his team a boost, too.
The senior from Raleigh, N.C., smacked a pair of two-out, RBI-doubles off Kennesaw State starter Bryan Blough. The first came in the sixth inning when he drove in Dylan Craig from second on a shot to left-center to give Belmont a 2-0 lead. Zeblo added some insurance in the eighth. After Craig drove in Derek Hamblen with a single, Zeblo blasted a double just inside the left-field line to plate Craig for a four-run lead.
“[Blough] was painting the corner with two-seamers and sliders. I had to really focus on trying to stay in the middle of the field,” Zeblo, who also called the pitches on Thursday, said. “Luckily, he made one mistake to me in my third at-bat and I hit in the gap. That was a big hit. In the eighth inning, I was just looking fastball and dropped the barrel head on it and good things happened. I was trying to hit hard and make good things happen.”
Heading into last weekend’s regular-season series, Belmont was on the brink of missing the A-Sun tournament for the second straight year. But the Bruins took two of three from the Hatters to qualify for the six-team, double-elimination tournament.
That extended Zeblo’s career, which was threatened last summer. While playing for Wilson (N.C.) Tobs out of the Coastal Plain League, he injured his elbow on his throwing arm. He was forced to have surgery that screwed the bone in his right elbow back into place. Zeblo said rehab lasted three months. He didn't throw until January and didn’t feel 100 percent until mid-February.
Now he is hitting .297 out of the cleanup spot and is tied for fourth on the team with 37 RBIs.
“It was frustrating because I had to work really hard to get my arm strength all the way back to where it was,” Zeblo said. “But I dealt with it the best I could and I am here now. That is all that matters.”
All that matters is Belmont is still playing — and playing well, at that.
In the first weekend of April, the Bruins dropped the first two games of a home series against Jacksonville. That put their conference record at 3-8. Brookshire said a team meeting was held to regroup and empathize playing “loose and confident.”
The talk worked. Belmont won the final game of the series and captured five of its last six conference series. In their last 21 games against league opponents, they are 16-5.
“We couldn’t go really much more down from there. We could only go up,” Brookshire said. “Coach [Jarvis] talks about playing with a little bit of swagger and cockiness in a respective way, just go out there and be loose and have fun.”