The Gamecocks needed a six-run eighth inning and to hold on in the ninth to turn back a scrappy sixth-seeded UT Martin team bent on an upset 9-8 at Pringles Park.
“I’m so happy that we won,” JSU coach Jim Case said. “That’s a game early that was kind in control, but I didn’t think it smelled good based on (some missed opportunities). Even though Aaron (Elias) was throwing really good, I was worried. Baseball comes back to bite you when these kind of things happen.
“We talk a lot about our experience in this tournament and we have a lot of experience, but we also have some new guys. The first time that you play there’s going to be some nerves. It’s a little bit higher stakes here. I’m glad we played today, hopefully get some of those nerves out of the way and I think we’ll play way better tomorrow.”
The Gamecocks (34-21) now play second-seeded Southeast Missouri (32-20) — in the Redhawks’ first tournament game — today at 3 p.m. UT Martin (19-35), playing in only its second OVC Tournament and first since 1996, look to stave off elimination against Eastern Kentucky at 11 a.m.
JSU has never lost an OVC Tournament opener since joining the league in 2004 — scoring at least seven runs in every game — but it came close this day.
The Gamecocks had plenty of offense, collected 18 hits, with everyone in the lineup getting at least one, but things looked grim in the eighth inning after the Skyhawks reached record-setting JSU closer Todd Hornsby for two runs to take a 5-3 lead.
They didn’t hit Hornsby hard, they just hit balls in spots the Gamecocks couldn’t reach. The eighth started with an infield single. Jordan Owen slapped an RBI single just past a diving Coty Blanchard to break a 3-3 tie and Wes Patterson drove in the other run with a single up the middle shortstop Andrew Bishop couldn’t flag down.
The Skyhawks played like a team that had nothing to lose. They scored the tying run in the seventh inning on a suicide squeeze.
But the Gamecocks showed the resiliency they’ve been known for under Case, bouncing back with six runs in the bottom of the inning to go ahead 9-5. They’ve now had 22 come-from-behind wins this season.
Two plays in the infield brought home the tying runs. Sam Eberle then slammed a long single off the Air Force sign on the left-field wall to bring home the go-ahead run. Kyle Bluestein followed with a two-run triple and scored when the relay throw bounced into the UT Martin dugout.
“We’ve always been kind of known as a team that never gives up,” Eberle said. “Coming from behind is not something that’s new to us. We never got down in the dugout, thought the game was over or anything like that. We always have a feeling we’re going to win the game.”
“No matter what the situation is, no matter what happens, we have confidence in our ability to play the game right and win the game,” Blake Seguin added.
Even though the Gamecocks had some breathing room, the game still wasn’t over. The Skyhawks pushed three more runs across in the ninth, helped by a ball that got over the head of centerfielder Michael Bishop, and had the go-ahead run at the plate when Hornsby struck out Jordan Owen on a 3-2 pitch to end the game. Hornsby gave up five runs on four hits and three walks in two innings, but was credited with the win.
“Defensively we did some things well and at the end it looked like we kind of lost our confidence and were having a hard time closing out the game,” Case said. “I hope that’s something that won’t happen to us when were back in that situation again.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.