Panthers keep streaking along
LAGRANGE – The streak’s at nine and counting.
The red-hot LaGrange College Panthers swept a doubleheader from Methodist on Sunday, running their win streak to nine games, and they’ve won 12 of 13 overall.
The Panthers, who at one point were 2-4 in the USA South, have won eight consecutive conference games, propelling them to the upper tier of the conference standings.
Only Ferrum (12-3) and North Carolina Wesleyan (13-5) are ahead of LaGrange College (10-4) in the USA South standings.
The Panthers (22-10 overall) were reeling after dropping back-to-back USA South series to Covenant and Piedmont, but beginning with a 9-0 road win over Huntingdon on March 11, they’ve been nearly unstoppable.
Over the past 13 games, LaGrange College’s only loss came on the road to nationally-ranked Birmingham-Southern, and it has dominated its conference opponents.
Everything is working for the Panthers.
The pitching has been lights out, and the offense has been relentless with everyone in the lineup contributing.
Even when the Panthers fall behind, as they did in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, they find a way.
LaGrange College trailed 8-4 in the fifth inning, but it rallied for an 11-8 win before finishing the sweep with a 5-1 victory.
The series finale will be today at 2 p.m. at Cleaveland Field in Williamson Stadium.
“It took them awhile to come together,” LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said. “We brought in a lot of new guys. We still had familiar faces from last year, but we also brought in some new ones. We’d get on a little roll, and then we’d falter a little bit. But we’re playing good baseball. I’m proud of how they’ve been playing.”
Casey Bell, a junior who is in his third season with the program, said it took a few weeks for everything to come together.
“We just had to get used to each other, and everything’s just falling into place,” he said. “Everybody knows their role and is not trying to do too much. Early in the year, we were all trying to figure out our roles. Now we all know our roles. Everybody does their job. It makes it go smooth.”
A common theme during the hot streak has been the lock-down performance of the pitchers.
Methodist scored eight runs in Sunday’s first game, but that’s an anomaly.
The Panthers have a team earned run average of 2.94, and the ERA is 2.51 during conference games.
LaGrange College has also been swinging the sticks.
The Panthers have a team batting average of .307, and they’re averaging more than six runs per game.
“The last couple of weeks, or the last three or four since we’ve been doing good, our pitchers have come and done a heck of a job,” said Blake Butcher, who is hitting .388 with a team-leading 36 RBIs. “They’ve come out and taken control of the game from the beginning. And our hitters have come around and put runs on the board early to give them support. It makes it easier on them. It lets them relax. We get after it.”
The Panthers were an up-and-down team through their first 19 games.
They began the season with three straight road wins over Sewanee, and they also had a five-game winning streak.
The Panthers also had two separate losing streaks of at least three games, and after a road loss to the Berry Vikings, they were 10-9.
Since that loss to Berry, LaGrange College has gone nearly a month with just one loss.
“We just started clicking,” said junior Cain Sauls, who is hitting .328 with 21 RBIs. “The pitchers have been dominating. And the hitters, everybody knows their role. Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in.”
Butcher said the returning players and newcomers have quickly formed a bond.
“We live on campus.” Butcher said. “We all live together. We hang out when we’re not on the field. Everybody’s excited to get back on the field. We’re playing so well. We want to see how far we can take this thing.”
The Panthers have four USA South games remaining in the regular season, and they still have a chance to secure the top seed for the conference tournament that begins on April 15.
The Panthers could be putting themselves in position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, no matter what happens in the conference tournament.
For the moment, the Panthers just want to keep the good times rolling.
As Butcher puts it,”winning’s fun.”
As for the alternative?
“Losing sucks,” Butcher said.
Fortunately for the Panthers, they haven’t experienced much of that over the past month.
Here’s a recap of Sunday’s games:
LAGRANGE COLLEGE 11, METHODIST 8
The Panthers jumped out to the early lead with three runs in the bottom of the first inning, but the Monarchs rallied, and they were ahead 8-4 after plating five runs in the top of the fifth.
Back came the Panthers, who scored a single run in the bottom of the fifth, and six more in the sixth inning to surge back ahead.
Three LaGrange College relievers combined to give up zero runs in 4 2/3 innings, including Jonathan Fleckenstein, who was the winning pitcher after throwing two scoreless innings in relief of starter Eric Morell.
Blake Schuck went 1 2/3 scoreless innings, and Adam DeWitt pitched the ninth inning for the save.
Morell has been sensational this season, but he struggled on Sunday and gave up eight runs (seven earned), but the bullpen picked him up.
“Morell didn’t have his best stuff, but he still gave us some real good innings, and the bullpen came in and helped him out,” Kelton said.
Offensively, Butcher continued to mash the ball, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs and three runs scored.
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth, Butcher had a three-run triple, and the Panthers went on to score three more runs before they were done.
Sauls added three hits, a walk, and he scored three runs, and Chad Pigg had two hits and two RBIs.
Joe Pradat had three hits and an RBI, and Jacob Gassert had two hits
LAGRANGE COLLEGE 5, METHODIST 1
Once again the Panthers took a first-inning lead, and this time they didn’t give it up.
The Panthers scored two runs in the bottom of the first to go up 2-0, and they added three more runs in the eighth inning to break it open.
Ryan Broaderick got the start, and he was sharp, allowing two hits and one run in his six innings.
Zach Tatham, Blake Schuck and DeWitt each pitched a scoreless inning to finish the game.
“The bullpen has been doing a great job all year,” Kelton said. “And the starters have, too. Our pitching in general has done a phenomenal job all year.”
LaGrange College’s four pitchers combined to throw a three-hitter.
Sauls did a lot of the offensive damage with three hits, including an RBI double in the first inning, and a run-scoring single in the eighth inning.
Pigg had a two-run double to cap the three-run eighth inning, and Butcher had a sacrifice fly.
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports