Agony, Ecstasy On Center Stage In SoCon

GREENVILLE, S.C.—J.D. Long stood there doing the math. He figured the only way his spot could come up as Western Carolina batted in the bottom of the ninth was if the bases were loaded, with two outs and the game tied.

Sure enough, there Long was, his Catamounts having rallied to tie Wofford 9-9 in the bottom of the ninth against Terriers closer Will Stillman. Stillman got ahead in the count 1-2, but Long didn’t come off his discipline. The No. 9 hitter in Western’s order watched the next three go by, the last a fastball that narrowly missed the inside corner for ball four. Game over. Western wins 10-9 to advance into the winners’ bracket at the Southern Conference tournament.

“You think, there’s one out and Caleb (Robinson’s) up,” Long said. “I’m like, well, if I get up there, there’s either going to be two outs or we’re going to have already won the game. You’ve got to go up there with the same mentality every time you’re at the plate. . . . It’s pretty awesome, that’s one of the best pitchers in our league.”

As Danny Bermudez crossed the plate with the winning run, Long’s teammates mobbed him at first base. They’d trailed the entire afternoon after giving up four runs in the top of the first, and they’d been down 9-5 in the bottom of the eighth when Wofford summoned Stillman, a fireballing righthander with a mid-90s fastball and 56 strikeouts in 33 innings coming into Wednesday. But their fight never waivered, as they chipped away with a run in the bottom of the eighth and then three in the bottom of the ninth to steal the win.

“Coming into the dugout from the top of the ninth, everyone was still up,” junior first baseman Matt Smith said. “No one was down. We knew we could keep battling. We’ve always been that way. Especially this time of year, we’ve got to really turn it up. . . . We just kept trying to attack and get guys on base.”

Wofford head coach Todd Interdonato knew all along that WCU, a typically high-powered SoCon offense that came in averaging 7.4 runs a game, wouldn’t go away. The teams had traded blows early on—the score was 6-5 after two innings—before Wofford started pulling away. But as Interdonato spoke to his team midway through the game, he told them this game would be like a doubleheader. They’d won the first game. Now they had to win the second.

“That first half of that game was one way,” he said, “and then after the fifth, we got them up and told them we needed to win the second one, which obviously we didn’t end up doing. You’ve gotta give (Western) credit. They stuck with it. They’ve got a great offense. We can always look at what we do and what we could’ve done and different scenarios, but at the end of the day, the other guys have to do it too.”

The fateful bottom of the ninth began, as often happens with such rallies, with the offense getting a break. In this case, it was a third-strike wild pitch that allowed the first hitter of the inning in WCU’s Garrett Brown to reach. A fly to center followed, which could’ve been the second out, but then the next five hitters all reached, three on hits and two on walks, the last of which forced in the tying run when Stillman walked Caleb Robinson on a full count.

As the inning unfolded, Interdonato did consider making a change. The Catamounts had been squaring Stillman up repeatedly, and his pitch count was climbing—he ended up throwing 64—but the coach stuck with him.

“You can’t sit there and just be blind to what’s going on,” Interdonato said. “My frame of mind was, by the time it looked like they were getting comfortable against him, we needed strikeouts. We needed unproductive outs. (Righthander) Elliot (Lance) was the guy that was ready with all those righties stacked after the four hole, and Elliot pitches to contact. . . . Once it was time when you’d consider a making a move, you need a strikeout and (Stillman’s) our best strikeout guy.”

Stillman did get one strikeout, whiffing Reece Strong for the second out of the inning. But then came Long, and the full-count fastball just off the plate inside. As Western celebrated, Stillman strode towards home plate, making his feelings known to umpire Andy Glenn before his catcher, Mack Nathanson, held him back. A heartbreaking ending to a game in which the Terriers, the tournament’s No. 7 seed, did a lot more right than wrong.

Interdonato himself had to pause to collect his emotions when talking about Stillman, a senior, in his postgame press conference. Such are the emotions when an entire season’s worth of work comes down to one week. But the Terriers aren’t done yet.

“There was some things in there we could’ve done better,” Interdonato said, “but man, we played very well. It’s tough to look at that, and it’ll be tough to convince our kids of that, but we played a great game.”

“Sometimes being where we are at an academic school, our guys are very cerebral. They’re deep thinkers. They’re philosophers. That’s how they do it. Sometimes that works against us, for sure. They overthink things, they make things too complicated. They want to quantify everything, and it doesn’t work like that sometimes. But in a scenario like this, I think the way our guys think helps us. Because if you think on emotion, it’s going to be really hard. But if you start thinking logically and try to look at your matchups, I trust our guys to be able to flush their emotions because they do that very well.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Western Carolina will try to ride the wave as far as it can.

“You want to do a better job in the first two innings from a pitching standpoint,” head coach Bobby Moranda said, “but then again, to fight back and win a game like this is pretty cool. We can do a better job. We weren’t executing our plan as well as we wanted to. But we’ll figure some things out tomorrow.”

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