This might be the last game of his college career — the last game of Jacksonville State’s season — so let’s make it a good one.
He hasn’t thrown any one better.
The senior left-hander retired the first 11 batters he faced, threw 5 1/3 innings of no-hit ball and allowed only two base runners in the six shutout innings as the Gamecocks stayed alive in the OVC Tournament with a 12-5 win over Morehead State at Pringles Park.
“It felt good; I hope it looked as good as it felt,” Watts said. “You never know, this could have been my last time to ever throw out there and that’s really what was going through my head: ‘Hey, I’ve got to put everything else I have left in me because this might be my last baseball game ever.’ That’s really what I wanted it to be.”
The next time Watts could throw would be Sunday — if the Gamecocks (27-29) get that far. They play again at 11 a.m. today against Eastern Kentucky; if they win, they return at 3 p.m.
If Thursday does prove to be his final college game — he is a junior eligibility-wise but already has said he won’t return next season — it was a good one to leave on.
He retired the first 11 batters he faced. He lost his perfect game on an infield throwing error in the fourth and his no-hitter on a solid single up the middle by No. 9 hitter Austin Haney. He struck out 11, tying his career high (set earlier this season) and tying the OVC Tournament neutral-site record, in effect since 2001.
He threw 69 pitches, 49 for strikes, and went to two balls or more on a hitter four times. The two relievers who worked behind him combined to throw two fewer pitches and two fewer strikes.
“He was about as dominant as you’ll see in college baseball; he was just outstanding today,” JSU coach Jim Case said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him throw like that, bullpen, in a game or anywhere where he was just that dominant with everything.”
It was Watts’ second straight start throwing zeroes, as he played Eastern Illinois over seven innings in his last regular-season start last week. He reduced his ERA, which at one time was 13.50 and above 8.00 when the OVC schedule started, to 4.35.
The offense supported him with a 17-hit attack. Eight of the nine starters had at least one hit. Sam Eberle and Ben Waldrip had three hits apiece — Eberle also had four RBIs — and five others had two each.
The suspense was over early as the Gamecocks jumped out to a 7-0 lead after three innings.
“Definitely having the guys behind me big today helped a lot,” Watts said. “Anybody could have thrown today the way we were hitting the ball.”
Morehead sophomore starter Noah Smallwood beat Watts and the Gamecocks in Game 2 of their regular-season series on March 31 but had no such luck this time.
In fact, the Gamecocks scored more runs in the first inning off Smallwood (five) than they did the entire previous game (two). Of course, they had a lot of help from the Morehead defense this time.
The Eagles, who entered the game with the second worst fielding percentage in the OVC (90 errors), made three errors in the inning — two in the infield. Sam Eberle drove home the first two runs with a double-and-error combo into the right-field corner. Kyle Bluestein brought Eberle home with the first of his two sacrifice flies, Cal Lambert ripped an RBI double to the deepest part of the park, and another run scored on a botched fielder’s choice.
The fielding foibles continued in the second inning with two more, leading to another run. Five of the eight runs JSU scored off Smallwood were unearned.
“For the first three-quarters of our season we really played good baseball all the way around,” Morehead coach Jay Sorg said. “For whatever reason the last quarter of the season we’ve just not played well, really, in any aspect. Today, we played very, very poor baseball at the beginning of the game.
“To their credit, they came out ready to play and, for whatever reason, not in any facet of the game did we come out ready to play in the first two innings.”
The two games in the tournament almost mirror the way JSU’s season has gone. The Gamecocks lost the first game of their last five OVC regular-season series, but bounced back to take the second and went on to take the series.
They won eight of nine conference series this year and have taken the series from each of the other five teams in the tournament field.
“There have been some scuffles for us in first games,” Case said. “That’s when we have the toughest time getting the big hit or making the big pitch or making the big play and it’s been very, very frustrating for us because we feel like we’ve played pretty well, we just haven’t been able to get over the hump in those first games.
“The hope is what we saw today we’ll be able to continue that as we did in most of those weekends.”