The Stetson Hatters went into Saturday’s double-header against Florida Gulf Coast safe in the knowledge that they would play in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament at Melching Field next week.
The Hatters also went in with a chance, with a sweep of the visiting Eagles, to share the A-Sun regular season title. Instead, it was Florida Gulf Coast that swept the double-header, winning both games 5-4, to earn a spot in the tournament, and drop the Hatters to the sixth seed in the tournament next week.
The Hatters, who were swept in a series for the first time since the final series of the 2011 season, fall to 34-21 overall and 15-12 in league play while Gulf Coast improved to 24-29 overall and to a matching 15-12 in A-Sun play.
Mercer, which swept USC Upstate over the weekend, also closed the year with a 15-12 record in league play.
The Hatters will face regular season league champion Belmont on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the opening round of the tournament. The event will open with No. 2 seed USC Upstate facing No. 5 Mercer at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. No. 3 seed Kennesaw State will face fourth seeded Florida Gulf Coast at 3 p.m.
“We created it,” Hatters coach Pete Dunn said. “We played as badly as we have played all year today. I am going to tip my hat to FGCU because they did exactly what they needed to do. They came out and it was obvious from the beginning. Those guys played with passion and we played very uninspired.”
The losses were disappointing for the Hatters for two reasons. Win, and they improve their NCAA at-large resume by at least sharing the regular season title. With the losses, Stetson will be out of the at-large mix and must win the tournament next week to advance to regional play.
“We obviously have to win the tournament now,” Dunn said. “I don’t think those kids understand the gravity of what happened today. As it turned out, we had an opportunity to win or share the crown and have that on our resume for the NCAA committee if we don’t win the tournament. Then, to fall all the way to the sixth seed, I don’t think they understand what happened.”
Saturday’s opening game was especially disappointing for the Hatters, who took a 4-2 lead to the eighth inning, only to see FGCU score three times to take the lead. The trouble in the inning started when reliever Cameron Griffin walked the leadoff man in the inning.
“The NCAA doesn’t keep this stat, but I can guarantee that we lead the nation in walking, or hitting, the leadoff batter in the late innings with a lead,” Dunn said.
A second walk followed an out and then a passed ball moved both runners into scoring position for Sean Dwyer, who singled through the right side to plate a run and move the tying run to third.
The Hatters called on closer Robbie Powell to come in and get out of the jam, but the Eagles got a squeeze bunt from cleanup hitter Brandon Bednar, scoring Kirby Retzer from third, just ahead of the throw from Sam Kimmel at first.
FGCU then got the lead after Zack Tillery singled to center, moving Dwyer to third, where he scored on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Tito Mendoza.
“We fought like crazy to get a two run lead and then we couldn’t throw strikes and we couldn’t catch the ball behind the plate,” Dunn said. “If you can’t do that, you can’t win on this level. It is just disappointing. You can’t get a lead like that and go out there and not throw strikes. Then we had the passed ball to let the tying run move up.”
The Hatters had taken the lead in the game in the seventh inning on a two-out, two-run single by Mark Jones. Stetson ended up leaving runners on base in eight innings in the game and, in the fifth, hit into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded.
FGCU reliever R.J. Brown (3-0) earned the victory while Griffin (3-1) took the loss. Brady Anderson came on to pick up his fourth save of the year in the ninth.
In the second game, the Hatters fell behind 5-0 after freshman starter Josh Powers (4-2) allowed five runs, three earned, on six hits over just three innings of work. The Eagles scored three in the third and two more in the fourth.
Stetson mounted a comeback, scoring four times in the fourth inning to chase FGCU starter Brandon Bixler, but reliever Andrew Polly (3-2) came on the shut the Hatters down over the final three-plus innings, allowing just two hits.
“Today we went in with an opportunity to win the championship of this league,” Dunn said. “To go to a sixth seed, that is really as disappointing as I have been in a long, long time. That is the way we played. We were a very soft club today.”