Winthrop is a team that has relied on pitching and timely hitting throughout the year.
It doesn’t get much more timely than a four-run eighth inning when trailing by three, and the dangling carrot is a trip to the Big South Championship game Sunday.
The Eagles batted around against a strong bullpen just an inning after going down 5-2, and got some solid relief from Jason Driver to hold on and win 6-5 Saturday against the top-seeded Liberty Flames. The Flames won 41 games and defeated Clemson and Duke (twice) this season, but the South Division champion Eagles did not play the winners of the North during the regular season. Some thought Liberty’s division was too strong for the South and Winthrop head coach Tom Riginos feels this win will help change that perception.
“No question,” Riginos said when asked if the win validated Winthrop’s division title. “No question about it. You look at what Liberty has done this year. They had a heck of a year in conference. We come out and beat them and I think it validates our Southern Division championship.”
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A win like this and playing Sunday for the title is all part of the plan for Riginos and his program. The Eagles will take on Campbell at 2 p.m. at the Winthrop Ballpark.
If the Eagles win the tournament championship, they would advance to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2006. Their last Big South Conference title came in 2005.
“It’s about the process,” Riginos said. “This is just the next step. This is year four and this is what I expect. We know what our expectations are. The kids believe in what we are doing here and it’s starting to come to fruition right now.”
The second-seeded Eagles trailed by three after giving up two in the seventh inning. However, the biggest play in that inning might have been the run Liberty did not get. T.J. Olesczuk ended the seventh by throwing out a runner at home from centerfield for what would prove to be a huge play in a one-run game. Liberty head coach Jim Toman argued vehemently with home plate umpire Junior Creech that the runner was safe, but to no avail.
In the eighth, the Flames took out Jared Lyons, who had gone three innings in relief and surrendered only one hit. Caleb Evans came in and Winthrop got to him quickly.
Olesczuk followed his brilliant throw in the seventh with a lead-off base hit. Then Cody Dolan ripped a double down the third-base line to put two runners in scoring position. Babe Thomas’ sacrifice fly to right scored Olesczuk and made it 5-3.
After a base hit to left by John Menken, Evans was removed in favor of Ashton Perritt. Clay Altman greeted him with a double to the fence in left-center that plated Dolan to make it 5-4. Brad Kaczka grounded to short and Menken, who was running on contact, was nailed at the plate. With two outs, Kyle Edwards lined a one-hopper to short. The ball absolutely ate up the shortstop for an error that allowed Altman to score the tying run.
Michael Patrick was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and with two outs Leighton Daniels was the second batter in a row to get hit by a pitch. This one would bring in Kaczka with what would prove to be the deciding run.
There was still a little drama in the Liberty ninth. Dylan Allen started the inning with a base hit to left. Nick Lacik followed by bunting him to second and the tying run was in scoring position. Jason Driver then got Ashton Perritt, who had two doubles, to strike out swinging for the second out. Will Shepherd, who had reached base safely three times, bounced a high hopper to third. Kaczka fielded and threw hurriedly to first. The throw pulled Altman off the bag but he was able to slap the tag on Shepherd for the final out that sent the Eagles to Sunday’s title game. Driver pitched two innings and allowed only one hit to pick up the save.
“The guys played great defense to keep us in the game and Joey (Strain) did a great job,” Driver said. “Putting some runs together in the eighth was definitely an adrenaline bump for us. We always talk about the last three innings, and we definitely won the last three innings.”
After complete games from their starting pitchers in the first two games, Winthrop got 6.2 innings from Strain on Saturday. He gave up four runs on seven hits while striking out three and issuing no bases on balls.
Strain was hit in the leg by a line drive from Shepherd, the second batter of the game, but then retired eight consecutive Flames after that.
The Eagles jumped on the Flames right out of the box in the top of the first. Tyler Asbill led off with a base hit to left and Daniels moved him to second. Liberty intentionally walked Olesczuk and Dolan made them pay with an RBI single through the pitcher’s legs and into centerfield to score Asbill.
“When you’ve got guys on in front of you and guys holding runners on it opens up some holes,” Dolan said.
Dolan said Saturday’s hitting would help the team’s psyche.
“Obviously, beating three good teams in the conference championship is going to give you more confidence. We are just looking forward to keeping it rolling.”
Liberty starter Trey Lambert came in 11-2 with a 2.01 ERA. He gave up only two hits in four innings but his main problem was five walks. He walked the bases full in the fourth and then took Edwards’ hard grounder off his leg that allowed Babe Thomas to score.
A two-run home run from Andrew Yacyk in the fifth put the Flames up 3-2 and gave Winthrop its first deficit of the tournament.
Winthrop 6 Liberty 5
LU;0;0;0;1;2;0;2;0;0; - 5;11;2
WU;1;0;0;1;0;0;0;4;0; - 6;7;0
Joey Strain, Travis Shelley, and Jason Driver. Trey Lambert, Jared Lyons, Caleb Evans, and Ashton Perritt. 2B - Cody Dolan, Clay Altman (WU) and Ashton Perritt (2) (LU). HR - Will Shepherd and Andrew Yacyk (LU). Leading hitters: WU - Dolan 2-5, 2B, RBI, R; Babe Thomas 1-3, BB, RBI, R; Altman 1-3, 2B, BB, RBI, R; Brad Kaczka 2 BB. LU - Perritt 2-5, 2 2B, RBI, R; Shepherd 2-4, HR, BB; Alex Close 2-4; Yacyk 2-3, HR, 2 RBI, 2 R. Records: Winthrop 27-32, Liberty 41-16.