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Catawba splits, reaches title game

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
WINGATE ó First-inning home runs were the theme as Catawba’s baseball team split two SAC tournament outings and reached today’s championship game ó or games.
Kevin McMillan’s two-run blast to left-center got Catawba rolling quickly in the nightcap, and the Indians steamrolled Newberry 12-0 in an elimination game.
“I got the pitch I was looking for ó fastball inside ó and was fortunate to drive it out to left-center,” McMillan said.
Second-seeded Catawba lost 9-3 Saturday afternoon in the winners bracket final, falling behind top-seeded Tusculum early on Sean Cotten’s three-run homer off Alex Fairweather and fighting uphill the rest of the way.
“Alex had to come right in there with a fastball after throwing five or six balls in a row, and Cotten’s sitting dead red,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “He got it and didn’t miss it.”
Staked to that quick cushion, Tusculum pitcher Boo Morrow proved a magician, walking a highwire and working out of jams almost every inning.
Catawba (33-16) managed one run in the fourth when Chris Ahearn walked, raced to third on McMillan’s bloop single and scored on Josh Hohn’s sac fly to medium right.
But the Indians didn’t have a smooth game defensively and trailed 6-1 before Brett Hatley launched a two-run homer to right on a 3-2 pitch with Zeb Link aboard.
“He was a tough pitcher, lots of off-speed stuff and changeups, and then he’d come in with a fastball,” Hatley said. “On the home run, he just happened to leave a pitch up. I got the barrel on it, got it into the air and it hit the jetstream.”
Hatley won the battle on a marathon at-bat, the sort of great at-bat that can get an offense percolating, but the 12th-ranked Pioneers (36-14) came right back to score three runs in the bottom half of the inning to end any suspense. Payden Houser’s two-run homer was the highlight.
Catawba got a solid relief effort from Travis McSweeney, who saved the rest of the pitching staff by working 42/3 innings, but the Indians left eight men on base and rapped into a pair of double plays.
“Morrow was tough with guys on base and was able to keep breaking balls away from us,” Gantt said. “I thought Hatley’s homer might get us started, but we didn’t get key hits and didn’t make the plays.”
Several streaks ended, including Ryan Query’s amazing stretches of homering in five straight games and driving in a run in nine straight. His only hit was a first-inning double. The game ended with Query in the on-deck circle.
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McMillan’s early homer gave starting pitcher Trevor Mullins something to work with, and Mullins, a transfer from Appalachian State, responded with a three-hit gem. He struck out nine and walked one. He allowed only seven baserunners.
“Mullins had a great game,” McMillan said. “Good curveball and his fastball had a lot of velocity.”
There was plenty of support. Catawba banged out 18 hits, with Query, Hohn and Craige Lyerly joining McMillan in a home run derby.
Lyerly, who was limited to a 1-for-5 effort in the first game, had three hits. He missed the cycle by a double and extended his hitting streak to 30 games. The school record is 33.
Lyerly and Hohn both homered in the eighth. Lyerly crushed a two-run shot to center. Hohn whacked one over the scoreboard in left.
Ahearn had four hits. Cameron White went 3-for-3.
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Catawba plays Tusculum today at 1 p.m. at Wingate.
Tusculum is still unbeaten in the double-elimination event so Catawba has to beat the Pioneers twice today to win the tournament championship and claim an automatic berth in the regional.
Catawba entered the tournament ranked sixth in the region. Six teams will go to the playoffs ó the tournament champs from the SAC, Conference Carolinas (Belmont Abbey) and Peach Belt, plus three at-large teams.
“The SAC got three in the regional last year for the first time so there’s some respect for our league,” Gantt said. “At the same time, the makeup of our region is a lot different now.”
Gantt’s pitching options aren’t exhausted . Standout closer Nathan Furr is sure to throw today and may start.

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