Game day for Panthers
Published 12:28 am Friday, May 17, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The LaGrange College Panthers are hoping to take the next step.
For the fourth time in the history of the baseball program, and for the third consecutive year, the Panthers have made it to regional round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
The winners of the regional advance to the super regional, and the Panthers haven’t made it that far in their three previous trips.
LaGrange College will get a chance to change that this weekend when it takes on Birmingham Southern in a best-of-five NCAA regional series.
They’ll play two games today at 2 p.m., and a third game on Saturday at 2 p.m.
If needed, a fourth game would be played on Saturday at 6 p.m.
If the series goes the full five games, the final game would be on Sunday at 3 p.m.
All of the games will be played at Birmingham Southern.
The winner of the series advances to a two-team super regional next week with a berth in the Division III World Series in June.
LaGrange College earned an invitation to the NCAA regional by winning the USA South tournament for the third straight year.
LaGrange College went 4-0 in the conference tournament, and it beat Greensboro 7-5 to win the title.
The Panthers (30-9) are red-hot, having won seven consecutive games, and they’ll look to keep the good times going this weekend.
“We talked about finding a way to win a regional and get to a super regional,” LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said after watching his team win the conference title. “We want to get where we’re competing for a national championship. We’ve talked about it. That’s our goal, and this is a step one.”
The format for this year’s NCAA regional is different for the Panthers.
The previous two years, the Panthers were a part of a four-team, double-elimination regional.
This year, LaGrange College is a part of a two-team regional.
The opponent is a familiar one.
LaGrange College hosted Birmingham Southern in a season-opening series in February.
LaGrange College won the first two games, and Birmingham Southern claimed the series finale to avoid the sweep.
Both teams went on to have exceptional regular seasons before winning their respective conference tournaments.
Birmingham Southern beat Rhodes 6-3 to capture the Southern Athletic Association championship.
LaGrange College is a complete team.
The Panthers have a team batting average of .308, and they’re averaging 7.5 runs per game.
It’s a stacked lineup led by McKinley Erves, who leads the team with a .417 batting average, and he has 18 RBIs and a team-best 37 runs scored.
Judd Moore, who was the MVP of the conference tournament, is hitting .390 with 15 RBIs.
Joe Ruth is hitting .354, and he’s tops on the team with 41 RBIs.
Cael Chatham is hitting .328 with 22 RBIs, and EJ Churchich has a .303 average with four home runs and 31 RBIs.
Jack Layrisson is hitting .306 with four home runs and 22 RBIs, and Trey Pearce is hitting .301 with 35 RBIs.
Rhett Hollon is hitting .296 with 19 RBIs, and catcher Austin McDade has driven in 22 RBIs, and he has two home runs.
It’s a lineup without any weak spots, which makes life uncomfortable for opposing pitchers.
“One through nine, I wouldn’t want to pitch against us,” said Judd Moore. “Anybody can make something happen at any time. Leadoff gets on, and he’s more than likely going to score.”
That balanced lineup also means the Panthers are never out of a game.
Three times in the conference tournament they rallied from behind to win.
“When we got behind, we know how good we are, and we know that any team that comes across the diamond with us we can beat them,” Erves said. “We know that if I’m not doing well, someone behind me is going to pick me up.
“Honestly we’re just a family, and we’ve always got each other’s back. That’s why we never stress.”
The pitching for the Panthers has been outstanding as well.
LaGrange College has a team earned run average of 3.37, and its primary starting pitchers have a combined record of 23-7.
Leading the way is Austin Fain, who has had a remarkable season, posting a 6-0 record with an ERA of 1.48.
Richie Post is also 6-0 with a 4.47 ERA, and Gibson Bittner is 8-3 with a 4.61 ERA while starting four games and also coming out of the bullpen 13 times.
Bittner started the tournament championship game against Greensboro, and he pitched 8 1/3 innings before turning things over to Spencer Douches.
The Panthers’ top relievers have been close to unhittable.
Douches has appeared in 16 games, and he’s 3-0 with three saves and a microscopic 0.53 ERA.
Tanner Chaffin, who leads the team with 19 appearances, all out of the bullpen, is 2-1 with five saves and a 1.13 ERA.
Kelton has a handful of other reliable pitchers he can call upon as well, including Anthony Elias, Coston Anderson and Michael Menheart.
“We’ve got a great pitching staff, a great offense,” Douches said. “So, if we can get ahead early in games and keep the pressure on them we can go a long way. We’re a dangerous team.”