Walk-off win for Panthers
Published 10:17 pm Thursday, April 12, 2018
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They’re halfway to another championship.
Austin Jones delivered a game-winning hit in the bottom of the 10th inning to lift the LaGrange College Panthers to a dramatic 5-4 victory over Piedmont on Thursday in the second round of the USA South baseball tournament.
The Panthers (24-15) improved to 2-0 in the tournament, and if they win their next two games, they’ll be the USA South champions for the second straight season.
LaGrange College faces North Carolina-Wesleyan at noon today, and if it wins that game, it would play for the title on Saturday.
If North Carolina Wesleyan wins, LaGrange College would still have an opportunity to make its way back through the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination tournament.
LaGrange College trailed Piedmont 4-1 when Jacob Gassert came through with a three-run home run in the bottom of the fifth to deadlock the score.
It remained a 4-4 game until the 10th inning when the Panthers won it.
Gassert led off with a single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by James Poropatic, and he scored when Jones ripped the ball to right field for the game-winning hit.
Jones also had an RBI double during Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Ferrum in the tournament opener.
“He was hot yesterday, too,” Gassert said. “He had basically our whole offense yesterday and got us through to today. And he did it again.”
While Jones’ hit won the game, it was Gassert’s home run that gave the Panthers life.
Jackson Patrick had a leadoff double in the fifth inning, and Rhett Mixon reached on a two-out walk to bring Gassert to the plate with his team down by three.
Gassert fouled off a number of quality two-strike pitches in the hope that he’d eventually get something he could handle. When Gassert got a pitch he was looking for, he didn’t let it go to waste.
He drove the ball well over the left-field fence for the three-run homer, and the Panthers were right back in it.
“You have the mindset to just choke up, and fight and battle until he gives you something you can get extension in the zone,” Gassert said of hitting with two strikes. “Luckily he gave me something I could handle, and I was lucky enough to where it went all the way over.”
LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said putting that sort of at-bat together doesn’t happen by accident.
“It’s one of those at-bats that he’s been working on all year, continuing to get better with two strikes,” Kelton said. “You couldn’t pick a better time to put together a two-strike at-bat where you grind and grind, and you get a great outcome out of it.”
That was part of a big day for Gassert, who finished with four hits, and he scored three of the Panthers’ five runs.
Jack Laryisson added three hits, and he was intentionally walked two batters before Jones won it in the 10th inning.
On the mound, Gibson Bittner provided another phenomenal performance.
In Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Piedmont, Bittner pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings to get the save in relief of Austin Fain.
A day later, the right-hander was back on the hill, and he was lights out once again.
Richie Post started, and he threw 5 1/3 innings before giving way to Bittner, who pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings to get the win and improve to 6-1.
Bittner threw 59 pitches, and 41 of them were strikes, and he held Piedmont to two hits while striking out two.
“We told all of (the pitchers), it’s that time of year,” Kelton said. “You’re going to be tired, but we’re going to have to use you more than what we usually do. And (Bittner) did a great job. He’s done a phenomenal job for us all year long.”
Bittner was backed up by some outstanding defense.
In the top of the 10th inning, Mixon made a sensational running catch in right field on a ball that appeared headed toward the gap.
On the next at-bat, shortstop Rhett Hollon made a tremendous diving stop, and he threw a strike to first for the second out.
Hollon made a routine play for the third out to make it a one-two-three inning, and the Panthers won it in their half of the 10th.
Piedmont jumped on top with three runs in the top of the third, and LaGrange College put its first run on the board in the bottom of the fourth when McKinley Erves had a sacrifice fly to bring in Gassert.
After Piedmont added a single run in the top of the fifth to go back up by three, Gassert pulled LaGrange College even with his timely home run in the bottom of the inning.
“We couldn’t get anything going. No momentum,” Kelton said. “And then Gassert had that huge home run. That changed everything.”
LaGrange College’s opponent today will be a North Carolina Wesleyan team that is also 2-0 in the tournament.
It will be the first meeting this season between the two teams, although they did face off in the championship game last season.
LaGrange College won that game 2-1 to finish off a perfect tournament run.
That the Panthers would be in a position to compete for another USA South title was far from a given coming into the season.
The 2017 team that went 40-6 was a senior-laden one, so it was an almost entirely new lineup that took the field for the season opener in February.
The Panthers have been red-hot for the past six weeks, though, and now they’re two victories away from making it back-to-back titles.
“At the beginning of the year, we started off kind of slow, kind of like two years before with all those new guys,” Gassert said. “Now we’re starting to find our stride and we’re playing our best baseball at the right time. It’s exciting. It’s fun to be a part of.”
OF NOTE: For a tournament bracket, go to usasouth.net, and for more photos, check out Facebook.com/LDNSports