GREENVILLE, SC - Western Carolina entered its winner's bracket game against The Citadel on Thursday night leading the Southern Conference in runs and the nation in homers and proceeded to bang out three round trippers en route to tallying 11 runs.
Tyler Griffin produced the biggest hit of the night with a three-run homer in the sixth, Johnathan Stokes turned in one of the best defensive plays in Citadel history and closer Skylar Hunter earned a measure of redemption, lifting the Bulldogs to a 12-11 win over the Catamounts to remain undefeated after two games at the SoCon tournament at Fluor Field.
The Citadel will take Friday off while Appalachian State and Western meet in an elimination game tomorrow at 3 p.m. The winner of that game will need to defeat the Bulldogs twice on Saturday to advance to the tournament title game on Sunday while The Citadel only needs one more victory to play for the championship.
A 1-0 game after 3 ½ suddenly turned into a slugfest which saw 20 runs scored over the next five half innings including a six-run Catamount sixth that gave Western a 9-8 lead.
But the Bulldogs responded right away to take the lead for good in their half of the inning. Hughston Armstrong reached on a bunt single and took second on a wild pitch. Joe Jackson, the hero of Wednesday's win over the Mountaineers with a walk-off homer, lined a double down the left field line to plate Armstrong and tie the game at 9.
Bo Thompson singled to put runners at the corners and bring Hunter Brister in from the bullpen as the third Catamount pitcher of the inning. After fouling off Brister's first pitch, Griffin launched a mammoth home run against the condominium behind the left center field wall to give The Citadel a 12-9 lead that it managed to hold on to the rest of the way.
The home run was Griffin's fourth in six games since returning to the lineup on May 14 after missing 18 games with a fractured foot. The SoCon Player of the Week the final week of the regular season went 2-for-4 with four RBI against the Catamounts and has gone 11-for-23 with 18 RBI since coming back from his injury.
Zach Sherrill returned some order to the mound with a 1-2-3 seventh including two strikeouts, and The Citadel wasted a golden opportunity to blow the game open when Tyler Powell struck out Thompson and Griffin with the bases loaded in the bottom of the frame.
The fireworks resumed in the eighth when Jacob Hoyle sent a David Riveraoffering into the Western bullpen for his second two-run homer of the game to bring the Catamounts within 12-11. Adam Martin drew a one-out walk, and the Bulldogs went to southpaw Ross White to face the left-handed hitting Dykota Spiess.
Spiess hit a hard smash up the middle that Stokes dove and managed to secure in his glove. He was then able to backhand a flip to Mason Davis at second to force Martin, and the relay throw to first completed the spectacular 6-4-3 double play that defused any remaining Catamount momentum.
White got two ground outs to start the ninth before Western sent up right-handed Dale Urquhart to pinch hit for Cody Jones. Hunter, who was victimized by a game-tying ninth inning homer by Appalachian State's Hector Crespo on Wednesday, needed only five pitches to finish off his 12th save of the year, blowing a high heater past Urquhart to set off a second straight celebration in front of The Citadel dugout.
Starters Logan Cribb and Jordan Smith were locked in an unexpected pitcher's duel between the two highest scoring teams in the SoCon, with the only run in the early stages coming on an RBI single by Jones in the second. The Bulldogs finally reached Smith in the fourth, with Jackson and Thompson singling to start the inning and Calvin Orth delivering both runners with a base hit up the middle.
Stokes followed with a bouncing single over the head of Tyler White at third to cap the three-run inning. After Hoyle tied it with his first home run of the game in the top of the fifth, Stokes again came up big, lining a bases loaded double into the alley in left center to bring in all three runners to cap a five-run uprising and give The Citadel an 8-3 cushion.
Stokes also led off the seventh with a double and finished the night with three hits and four RBI. The sophomore shortstop has driven in 51 runs on the year, a remarkable total for a player who has batted near the bottom of the order the majority of the season. His big night came one day after seeing his 10-game hitting streak snapped and end a stretch which saw him knock in only one run in his last seven contests.