Winthrop starting pitcher Josh Strong went the whole game Thursday for the Eagles in a 3-2 Big South Conference tournament baseball win over Coastal Carolina.
Asked if he was bothered by the 90-plus temperature, Strong’s response was short: “I’m from Orlando.”
So no, he wasn’t bothered. Strong allowed two runs on seven hits, but plowed through 123 pitches in nine innings to help the Eagles into a Saturday game that will start 45 minutes after the 10 a.m. game concludes. Strong’s complete game win was Winthrop’s second in as many outings, after Sam Kmiec threw a complete game shutout Tuesday against Charleston Southern.
“I think the guys battled their tails off today,” said Winthrop coach Tom Riginos. “Josh just grinded through. Early on he didn’t have his best stuff but he really settled in and started competing his butt off up there.”
Winthrop (26-32) plays Saturday against the winner of Liberty and Radford’s elimination game set for 3 p.m. Friday. It was another difficult loss to stomach for a Coastal Carolina (24-32) unit that’s lost nearly a starting lineup’s-worth of players to season-ending injuries.
“We are who we are; the reason our record is what it is, you saw it right there,” said frustrated Coastal coach Gary Gilmore. “We can’t make a tag play at home, we can’t bunt, and we can’t execute with men on second and third and less than two outs. Simple as that.”
Winthrop mustered just six hits, two coming from T.J. Olesczuk, and one each from Cody Dolan, Babe Thomas, John Menken and Brad Kaczka. Strong’s effort on the mound ensured that the Eagles didn’t need much, and they went the second straight game without going to the bullpen, which bodes well for the latter stages of the tournament.
Winthrop took the lead in the bottom of the second. Dolan singled, then advanced to second on Thomas’ ground-out. Menken delivered an RBI single, scoring Dolan to make it 1-0. Clay Altman was then hit by a pitch and later got caught in a run-down, but was able to stay alive long enough for Menken, who had advanced to third on a wild pitch, to scurry home for a 2-0 Eagles lead.
Strong encountered trouble in the top of the third inning. He plunked Michael Paez to load the bases with two outs, and Connor Owings stretched to poke a two-run single into right field to knot the score at 2-2.
Strong got into another sticky spot in the top of the fourth. An infield error and miscommunication defending a bunt put two Chanticleers on base with no outs. A Kyle Jackson sacrifice bunt moved both runners over, but Strong struck out Riley Norton and duped Reid Moman into an inning-ending ground-out to second baseman Leighton Daniels. It was another smooth escape for Strong, who came into the game with a record of 2-5.
“Any time you get a complete game in college baseball, you’re happy about it,” said Riginos. “Josh has really thrown well all year. Maybe his record’s not where it wants to be, but his innings pitched and his hits allowed, every time on the mound he gives you a chance.”
Winthrop scrounged up the game-winning run in the bottom half of the fourth. It came in the most Winthrop 2014-way possible. Olesczuk singled to lead off, blasting a shot off of Coastal pitcher Austin Kerr’s leg, before Dolan walked. Thomas then connected with an 0-2 pitch to single and load the bases. That proved the end of Kerr’s day, the former Chester Cyclone making way for Andrew Beckwith, a hard-thrower from a 3/4 arm slot.
Beckwith buckled down and escaped the inning, but not before Altman singled to first, allowing Olesczuk to score when the throw home went to the wrong side of the plate and forced Coastal catcher Tyler Chadwick to snap a tag-attempt across his body, unsuccessfully. The safe call drew the ire of the traveling Chanticleers supporters, but no protest from the visiting coach.
“Caught the ball on the wrong side of the plate; guy was safe,“ said Gilmore.