Catawba wins SAC baseball tournament
By Mike London
The bases were loaded in the bottom of the ninth when Catawba closer Nathan Furr ended the SAC tournament with a three-pitch strikeout of Tusculum pinch-hitter Tim Kellinger.
Catawba’s baseball team accomplished a difficult mission Sunday, beating 12th-ranked Tusculum twice to take the SAC tournament and earn an automatic berth in the Southeast Regional tournament.
Catawba won 11-10 and 4-3 at Wingate’s Ron Christopher Stadium in a day filled with drama. The rivals were on the field more than six hours.
“Anytime it’s Catawba and Tusculum, it’s going to be a long, hard day,” senior catcher Ryan Query said. “It was a crazy day, and how we did what we did, I have no idea, but we did it. The last few days we’ve spent wondering how far did we need to go down here to make the playoffs, and today we put all the doubts and questions to rest with the best answer.”
The regional will be played May 14-17, probably at USC Aiken, the region’s top-ranked team. Tusculum will be there as well if it gets one of the three at-large bids available.
Sunday’s doubleheader will be remembered mostly for storybook efforts by Furr, who won the first game and closed the second, and Blake Ketner, who took the mound on two days rest for the finale and shut down the top-seeded Pioneers (36-16) for six innings.
“Blake we felt could do it because of the way he always prepares himself,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “He throws just about all fastballs and doesn’t usually throw a lot of pitches so we felt like he could go out and give us a chance. As far as Furr, I was very concerned about him being asked to do what he did, but he was throwing hard and well at the end. Those last few pitches ó he let ’em go.”
Furr, making his first start of the season, pitched six innings in the opener, and Catawba’s bats built an 8-4 lead. Cameron White had four hits to pace a 14-hit attack. Senior Kevin McMillan drove in four runs.
With its lead down to 8-6, Catawba added three insurance runs in the eighth. That proved just enough, as Tusculum scored four runs in the ninth. Senior Cliff Poole, Catawba’s sixth pitcher, got the final two outs for the first save of his career.
Ketner (10-3), who had been sharp in Catawba’s tournament opener on Thursday, took the ball for the decisive game in the double-elimination event.
“We spent Saturday night talking over our options, and I was one of them,” Ketner said. “I got out to the field about noon and my arm felt great. I was worried more about my legs than my arm.”
Ketner struck out six, but second-seeded Catawba trailed 2-1 after six.
Then Query led off the seventh with his 19th homer. Rob Currie was on the mound for the Pioneers. He has a very good curveball.
“I was thinking he’d probably throw a curveball first pitch, but in the back of my mind I also figured he knew I’d be looking for a curveball and might throw a fastball,” Query said. “He threw a fastball. I reacted to it and the ball cleared the left-field scoreboard.”
That tied it.
Chris Ahearn and McMillan followed with hits, and Catawba (35-16) got a game-swinging break when Josh Hohn’s bunt was thrown away down the right-field line, allowing two runs to score.
Relievers Tim Holmes and Wil Huneycutt got seven key outs as Tusculum pulled within 4-3. Then Furr got the final two outs to close the door.
Both teams left 12 men on base. Catawba survived four errors by turning four double plays.
Junior third baseman Craige Lyerly was 3-for-8 in the doubleheader. He extended his hitting streak to 32 games, one shy of Big Earl Lentz’s long-standing school record set in 1956.
“It just goes to show that we’ve got some guys who have put in the work, and now it’s their time and they’re coming through,” Gantt said. “When this season started, I didn’t think we’d be here, but it’s been fun watching. The guys went out there today knowing they still had some control of the future if they won, and they did it on the field. It was special. I’m as proud of them as any group I’ve coached.”
Ketner, a senior who has won 29 times in his career, summed up the day best.
“Just knowing we’re gonna keep playing instead of sitting around and hoping to get a chance to play, that’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “This is really satisfying. My arm has never felt better than it does right now.”
nCatawba SID Jim Lewis contributed to this story.