Three months ago, when Appalachian was picked 5th and 6th respectively by the SoCon coaches and media, it had to feel like a slap in the face to a team that was returning eight of nine positions players and four of five starting pitchers. The Mountaineers did lead the conference with five preseason all-conference selections, with Daniel Kassouf, Tyler Zupcic, Ryan Arrowood and David Port living up to their billing. However, a warm winter, and tons of hard work have put the Mountaineers in the position to capture their first league crown since 1987. On top of it all, the Mountaineers control their own destiny. In years past, the last series of the regular season was all about tournament seeding positioning, and in some years, working just to get into the tournament. The Mountaineers might be catching fire at the right time. Earlier in the season, winning on the road was a concern in conference play. The Mountaineers struggled at Elon and Georgia Southern, only able to to win one game in each of those series. In the last month, Appalachian has swept Wofford and won a series at third place Samford, two teams that are loaded with veteran pitching. That brings us to this weekend, with Appalachian needing two victories against a team that resembles Elon and Georgia Southern more than Wofford and Samford.
Western Carolina leads the league in batting average (.312) and total hits (569). Compared to the Mountaineers, Western is averaging one-third of a hit more than the Mountaineers per game. Appalachian is hitting .311 on the season and leads the SoCon in several other meaningful offensive statistics, including slugging percentage, on-base percentage, doubles, triples and steals. As noted, Western can hit the ball as well, as they are in the top half of the league with 36 home runs hit and may have one of the better top to bottom lineups in the league. Eleven different Catamounts have hit the long ball, with two players having hit seven on the season. Six Catamounts are hitting over .300. However, Appalachian’s pitching staff leads the league, only giving up 16 home runs on the season and sports the best fielding percentage in the conference.
Personally, I think this series comes down to which team plays the best situational baseball. Which team can get that clutch hit and who can get runners into scoring position more often. I also think that the late innings will be huge for both teams. Both teams have above average starting pitching and good closers. The Appalachian bullpen has been a little shaky in the last couple weeks, and Western has a bullpen that can give up its fair share of hits as well. Two of the most worked Catamount relievers, Adam Curtis and John Nadale, are giving up batting averages of .290 and .316, respectively.
After multiple weather delays on Thursday evening, Appalachian headed to Friday afternoon with a five run deficit and down to its final nine outs. The game resumed with Appalachian batting in the seventh inning with a runner on first base. Trey Holmes and Preston Troutman recorded back to back singles to give Appalachian its first run of the game. Noah Holmes grounded out at the bottom of the order, but moved his brother and Troutman into scoring position with two outs. The top of the lineup, Hector Crespo and Tyler Zupcic both walked to cut Western Carolina’s lead to 5-2. Will Callaway singled up the middle in the next at bat to score two runs. Daniel Kassouf followed Callaway’s single with one of his own to tie the score at 5 at the stretch.
Appalachian scored another run to take its only lead of the game at 6-5 in the top of the eighth inning on another RBI hit by Preston Troutman. However, Western Carolina would put together a rally of their own, touching up Mountaineers Tyler Moore and Jamie Nunn for three runs in the bottom half of the inning. The Mountaineers could not muster a hit in the ninth inning. Momentarily, the Mountaineers have their backs to the wall, with only two games remaining to play and their magic number still stuck at two.
The rally by the Mountaineers got Ryan Arrowood off the hook for the loss, but at the same time, gave freshman Jamie Nunn his first career loss. Appalachian left seven runners on base for the game, with Tyler Tewell responsible for four of the stranded runners. Will Callaway and Preston Troutman were the only Mountaineers with multiple hits as they both recorded two hits and two RBI each. Jeremy Dowdy did not make the trip in order to rest his back for the conference tournament. Josh Zumbrook is the second catcher for the weekend in case Tyler Tewell is injured.
For eight innings, Appalachian baseball could not come up with the clutch hit, leaving nine men on base while heading to the ninth inning without a run to their name. Much like the game from Thursday Night, the game was delayed from the onset by lightning. It was long enough to cool down the Mountaineer bats, which had scored six runs in the final three innings of Thursday’s game which resumed at 4pm on Friday.
Something happened in the ninth inning. Western Carolina picked up a huge insurance run in the bottom of the eight, which made Appalachian’s comeback bid that much more difficult. Western Carolina starter Morgan McKinney came out for the ninth, to attempt the complete game, at which time he had thrown 125 pitches. Trey Holmes led off the ninth inning with a single after startiing the count down 0-2 and fouling off three other pitches. Preston Troutman flied out the next at bat, which set the stage for freshman pinch hitter Alex Leach, who was stepping in for only his 19th at bat of the season. Leach fell behind early in the count before lacing an opposite field single to left on another two strike count. A fielding error allowed Holmes and Leach to move up to 2nd and 3rd base, respectively.
At the top of the lineup, Hector Crespo hit a slow chopper to the pitcher that he could not handle, and was able to reach base on error, loading the bases. Tyler Zupcic followed with a slow chopper up the first base line that was also tough for the pitcher to control and he beat the throw, scoring Trey Holmes. The lead had been cut to 4-1 with Appalachian’s most dangerous hitters waiting. Will Callaway singled through the right side of the infield, on another two strike count, scoring Leach. Western now led 4-2. A wild pitch followed that scored Crespo from third, and a throwing error back to the plate scored Zupcic, tying the game. Daniel Kassouf struck out, but another wild pitch by Western scored Callaway from third, giving Appalachian a 5-4 lead. It appeared Appalachian would tack on a few more runs with Tyler Tewell and Brandon Burris recording back to back singles, but Trey Holmes struck out for the final out of the inning.
Nathan Hyatt entered in the ninth and issued a pair of walks but shut down Western with a game ending strike out to secure Appalachian their first conference title since 1987. Earlier in the day, Greensboro came back from a 7-2 deficit to defeat Charleston 10-8. Throughout the evening, a roller coaster of emotions from a fan’s perspective had come to a thrilling end. A small celebration ensued at the mound after the final out was recorded. Outside of four innings, Appalachian had been dominated by the Western pitching staff in the first two games of the series. The regular season finale has no meaning outside of Appalachian securing the outright title with a win. Appalachian will play Furman on Wednesday at 5pm regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s games.
Eight Mountianeers connected on twelve hits, lef by Tyler Zupcic who was 3/5 with an RBI, and an outfield assist in the first inning that kept a run off the board. Brandon Burris and Trey Holmes added two hits each. Seth Grant worked seven innings, striking out five and only allowing one earned run. For Grant, it was his fifth stright start without a decision. Western closer Preston Hatcher was tagged with his first loss of the season, while Hyatt picked up a school record with his fourteenth save of the season.
Appalachian had an opportunity to win the conference title outright with a Saturday win over Western Carolina. The top seed for the conference tournament was already in place, but winning the conference outright would have been icing on the cake. Appalachian started the scoring in the fourth inning when Will Callaway was hit by a pitch on a full count to put the leadoff batter on base. Daniel Kassouf stepped up and launched a 2-1 pitch over the left field wall to give him his 17th home run of the season, breaking an Appalachian record that had stood since 1982, and was tied in 1986. Western Carolina would respond in the bottom half of the inning with a run, as the Mountaineers led 2-1 after four complete innings.
Western Carolina would score five runs in the bottom of the fifth. Rob Marcello was pulled after allowing two doubles and a HBP to start the inning. An error by Hector Crespo also contributed to the Catamount runs. Jordan Jessup finished the inning without an earned run considering inheriting one runner and two runners scoring on Crespo’s error. Appalachian would respond in the top of the sixth inning with four runs on only three hits. Noah Holmes knocked in two runs and scored in the inning.
The score would remain tied at six until the bottom half of the seventh inning. Jamie Nunn was able to record two quick outs with a strikeout and groundout before allowing a single and hitting a batter. A conference on the mound ensued that resulted on Nunn remaining in the game. His next pitch was sent over the wall by pinch hitter Dykota Speiss to give Western a 9-6 lead. Appalachian scored one run in the top of the ninth, but it was not enough as they fell 9-7 to end the regular season.