Kennesaw State scored four runs in the eighth inning on Friday afternoon to rally for a 5-4 victory over the Stetson Hatters in an elimination game at the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament.
The Hatters’ season ended with a 35-23 record. The Owls (33-24) move on the play at 1 p.m. on Saturday against either Belmont or Florida Gulf Coast. Kennesaw will have to win twice on the final day of the tournament to win its first A-Sun title.
While the eighth inning certainly spelled the difference in the outcome of the game, Stetson coach Pete Dunn pointed to the fifth inning, when the Hatters held a 4-1 lead, as the turning point in the game.
“We had opportunities to build the lead, that is what plagued us all year,” Dunn said. “We had first and second with no one out and we didn’t get a bunt down, missed a squeeze, and took ourselves out of an inning.
“When you are playing for your life, you never know when that one run or two runs will make the difference. Obviously, it was huge today.”
After Ben Carhart walked and Mark Jones singled off Owls starter Kevin McCoy to open the fifth, Kennesaw State brought in side-winding reliever Justin McCalvin (3-1) to face Mitchel Brennan.
Brennan dropped down a bunt, but failed to get the ball down the third base line past McCalvin, who pounced on it and threw Carhart out at third for the first out. Jones got to third on what should have been a double-steal, but Brennan stayed at first.
With junior Kurt Schluter, one of Stetson’s best bunters at the plate, the Hatters called for the squeeze play. The only problem was that Schluter did not get the sign and took a pitch, hanging a charging Jones out to dry.
In the deciding eighth inning, the Owls opened the inning with a single up and middle and a walk off sophomore Austin Perez. Junior Joe Dye (0-1) was called on to face the heart of the KSU order, starting with All-Conference catcher Ronnie Freeman.
After an extended, 12-pitch, at bat, Freeman drew a walk to load the bases. Andy Chriscaden followed by dropping a single just over the glove of second baseman Robert Crews into right field to score the first KSU run of the inning. Designated hitter Max Pentacost followed by ripping a three-run double to the gap in right, putting the Owls on top.
Zak Griffith came on in the ninth for Kennesaw State and retired the top of the Stetson order in order to pick up his third save of the year.
“We didn’t throw strikes in the eighth inning like we needed to,” Dunn said. “Of the runs that scored, two reached on walks. We just didn’t play well enough to win. It was the same things that plagued us off and on all year – not throwing strikes, not being efficient getting runs in when you have an opportunity to build the lead.”
Dunn said the loss is especially disappointing knowing that a win would put the Hatters into play on the final day of the tournament, where anything could happen.
“You never know what could happen if you could get to (Saturday),” Dunn said. “There could be three teams left with one loss and, if you can get to the championship day you have an opportunity. We just weren’t good enough to get there.”
As disappointing as the loss and the end of the season was for the Hatters, it was especially disappointing for 11 seniors who donned a Stetson uniform for the last time.
“When the finality hits you, it is tough to swallow,” Dunn said. “That was it. We are not going to the NCAA Tournament. We don’t have to stay around until Monday to see because our name is not going to be up there. We knew going in that we had to win it. It is disappointing. You can’t describe it because it hurts so badly.”
Stetson got off to a good start on Friday, scoring twice in the first inning and then adding single runs in the third and fourth. The Hatters, however, could have blown the game open in those first four innings, but left four players in scoring position.
After McCalvin came in to pitch in the fifth, Stetson got just one more hit, a two out double by Crews in the sixth. McCalvin also walked just one and struck out five in his four innings of work for the Owls.
Stetson senior Lindsey Caughel worked into the sixth inning in his final start for the Hatters. He was not as sharp as he has been in other starts, but battled through adversity for much of his outing. The Owls put runners on base in every inning against Caughel, but managed only one run, on a third inning single by Almonte to plate Aaron Dobbs.
“You have to capitalize on opportunities when you have them,” Dunn said. “We were playing a good team and everyone is playing for their lives right now. You have to execute when you have opportunities. It wasn’t just today, it has been that way all year. We just never could get it figured out.”
Crews, Kimmel, Carhart and Jones had two hits each at the top of the order for Stetson, but the Hatters had just two other hits from the rest of the lineup. Peyton Hart, Almonte and Pentecost had two hits apiece for the Owls.