Panthers two wins from championship
By Kevin Eckleberry
WEST POINT – The LaGrange College Panthers swing the bat as well as anyone in the country.
The Panthers have a team batting average well above .300, and they’re plating nearly 10 runs per game.
As the Panthers showed on Thursday, though, they can get it done even when they’re not bludgeoning the opposing pitcher.
LaGrange College had yet to put a run on the board when it came to bat in the top of the eighth inning of a scoreless game against Maryville in the winner’s bracket of the USA South tournament.
The Panthers scored three runs in the inning, and they got it done with two walks, three well-placed bunts, and a clutch two-run single by Joe Pradat.
Chad Pigg, LaGrange College’s senior catcher, drove in the go-ahead run with a squeeze bunt, and Pradat’s base hit capped the scoring.
Those three runs were plenty of support for senior pitcher Andrew Weekley (8-1), who was brilliant.
Weekley pitched eight shutout innings and gave up just four hits while striking out 10, and Jonathan Fleckenstein got the final three outs to earn his fourth save and his second in two days.
The Panthers will be at home today at noon against North Carolina-Wesleyan for another tournament game, and if they win that one, they’ll play for the championship on Saturday.
A year ago, the Panthers lost their tournament opener, and they ended up having to play four games over the next three days.
Now, LaGrange College is in position to possibly win the championship by playing single games for four consecutive days.
“It’s good to skip the doubleheader today, and hopefully tomorrow we can get after it, and continue to go one each day,” LaGrange College coach David Kelton said.
If the Panthers continue to pitch like they have through the first two rounds of the tournament, they’ll be hard to beat.
In Wednesday’s tournament opener, Ryan Broaderick and Fleckenstein combined to shut down Piedmont’s offense in a 5-2 victory.
On Thursday, Weekley was untouchable.
“Everything I threw down, he was right there,” said Pigg, who caught everyone of Weekley’s pitches. “He executed every pitch. He was down in the zone. He gave us a great chance to win.”
Weekley, like all of the Panthers’ pitchers, is used to having plenty of run support, but that wasn’t the case on Thursday.
Maryville’s Anthony Rodriguez was also throwing well, and he left in the seventh inning having not allowed a run.
“It gives you a little motivation to not give up any runs,” Weekley said of pitching in a tight game. “You definitely want to give your team the best chance to win the game.”
Weekley left the game after giving up a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth, and Fleckenstein secured the final three outs.
“He stayed below the knees,” Kelton said of Weekley. “He pitched extremely well, and we needed that, especially with our offense not clicking.”
The eighth-inning rally began when Blake Butcher walked, and Kyle Gutowski entered the game as a pinch-hitter.
Gutowski got the bunt down, and when the first baseman failed to get his foot on the bag, he reached safely, and the Panthers had men on first and second.
Next up was Blane Swift, and his sacrifice bunt put men on second and third, and Cain Sauls was intentionally walked to load the bases.
That brought Pigg to the plate.
Kelton called for the squeeze play, and Pigg came through with a perfect bunt for a hit, and the Panthers had the lead.
For Pigg, it was all about bringing the run home, whatever it took.
“We got the run across,” Pigg said. “That’s all that matters.”
Pradat then lined the ball into right field for a two-run single, giving the Panthers two critical insurance runs.
“I’d like to think that even when we’re not swinging, we can win with small ball,” Kelton said. “We work it non-stop, we work it every day. I enjoy it. To me, I love that aspect of the game.”
Pigg said the players don’t care how the runs score, as long as the team is successful.
“It’s just a testament to how bad we want to win,” Pigg said. “We’re committed to team baseball, and trying to do whatever it takes to get the win.”
Pradat had three of the Panthers’ seven hits, and Tavin Thompson, Billy Peatross, Gutowski and Pigg each had one hit.