With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, the bases packed with Georgia Southern Eagles and a Southern Conference title on the line Sunday at Riley Park, Samford coach Casey Dunn went for broke. Dunn removed his center fielder from the game and inserted an extra infielder in an effort to keep the ball on the infield and his team’s hopes for a championship alive. But Eagles catcher Chase Griffin found a hole anyway, poking a one-out single past second base to drive in Stryker Brown and give Georgia Southern a 4-3 victory and one last SoCon championship trophy on its way out of the league. Georgia Southern (39-21), which departs the SoCon for the Sun Belt beginning in the fall, won its seventh tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals. Samford, which owned a 3-1 lead Sunday until giving up two runs in the seventh and two more in the ninth, ended its season at 35-25.
“Coach (Rodney Hennon), he wanted this trophy more than anybody,” said Griffin, a junior from Leesburg, Ga. “I’m so glad that our last year in the conference we were able to pull this out and get a trophy.”
This SoCon tournament marked the end of an era for the league, with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State headed for the Sun Belt, Davidson for the Atlantic 10 and Elon for the Colonial Athletic Association, which welcomed former SoCon member College of Charleston last year. The SoCon will add Mercer, East Tennessee State and VMI to its number this year, putting the membership for baseball at nine.
“It means a lot to win this one,” said Hennon, whose team won five straight games in the tournament after dropping its opener by 3-2 to App State on Wednesday. “I was talking to (former Citadel athletic director) Walt Nadzak about where Southern Conference baseball was years ago to where it is now. I’m proud to have been a part of that over the years, and it’s special to have been a part of that. At the same time, we’re looking forward to what we have in the future.”
The trophy looked to be Samford’s after an excellent effort from starting pitcher Alex Ledford, who blanked the Eagles over six innings while his team built a 3-0 lead. But GSU chased Ledford with two runs in the seventh on RBI singles by Brown and Hunter Thomas, setting the stage for a thrilling ninth. Against Samford closer Andres Gracia – who saved 14 games while allowing only one earned run all season – the Eagles loaded the bases with one out on two singles and an intentional walk. Garrett Chapman singled through the right side to tie the score, prompting Samford’s coach to make a defensive switch.
“I’d never seen that before,” Griffin said. “I’ve teams shift before, but I’ve never seen five infielders. I was able to get it through there, and it was awesome.”
As Brown scored the winning run, Griffin was pummeled and then buried under a dogpile by teammates.
“It hurts a little bit,” he said. “But it’s a good hurt.”
For a shell-shocked Samford team, the hurt wasn’t so good.
“Obviously, we needed a sixth infielder in there at the end,” Dunn said. “But this was a new group of guys for us, and from Day 1 our goal was to play our best this week at the tournament, and I think we did that.”
Eagles reliever Jason Richman, who worked two scoreless innings Sunday and pitched in all six tournament games with an ERA of 0.68 in 131/3 innings, was named the SoCon Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. On the all-tournament team were pitchers Jeffrey Springs of App State and Alex Ledford of Samford; catcher Daniel Gerow of Davidson; first baseman Caleb Bryson and outfielder Heath Quinn of Samford; second baseman Ben Morgan, shortstop Dalton Busby and outfielder Aaron Mizell of Georgia Southern; third baseman Michael Pierson of App State; and outfielder Jake Jones and designated hitter Alex Abrams of Furman.
The tournament drew a total of 6,486 fans, the lowest since the league began keeping totals in 1997. Last year in Greenville was the previous low at 8,985. The high mark came in 2004, when 35,150 fans attended the tournament at Riley Park, an average of 2,343 per game. Next year’s tournament is set for Riley Park; Greenville has an option for 2016 and 2017.