Bulls top ECU in conference tourney opener
With his injury-ravaged team facing a single, narrow avenue to the postseason, USF coach Mark Kingston opted to shake up his staff in search of an 11th-hour spark.
For Wednesday's American Athletic Conference tournament opener, he started his No. 2 guy and moved his No. 1 to closer. His Sunday starter became a setup guy.
Radical, for sure. And in the end, rewarding.
The seventh-seeded Bulls got seven sparkling innings from Hernando High alumnus Brandon Lawson and a save from normal Friday night starter Phoenix Sanders in a 4-2 upset of
No. 2 East Carolina (34-20) at Bright House Field.
USF (24-31), which must win this double-elimination event to reach the NCAA Tournament, faces either Memphis or Connecticut at 7 p.m. Thursday, when normal closer Tommy Eveld will make his first start in more than a year.
"The only way we're gonna win this is if we continue to get starting pitching like that," Kingston said.
"And then the guys...being put in new roles, they're gonna have to take to those roles. To win a tournament like this, things have to go your way and guys have to perform in their roles. There's just no room for error. So that's exactly what happened today."
It started with Lawson, who allowed two runs on seven hits, striking out eight and walking three. Assisting his cause was a defense that caught one ECU runner trying to stretch a leadoff double into a triple (in the fourth), and caught another Pirate in a rundown between first and second after a leadoff bloop single (in the sixth).
"Early on, fastball command and slider command was really working for me well," Lawson said. "Later on, I started throwing the curveball and change-up. Those were a little iffy but early on I was able to get ahead and put batters away."
The only glitch to Lawson's day occurred in the seventh. With two ECU runners aboard, two out and USF up 2-0, Pirates designated hitter Kirk Morgan lofted a high fly to left that Cameron Montgomery appeared to catch, then drop. Replays later showed he never had full possession.
The result was a two-run double and tie score. USF re-gained the lead for good in the top of the ninth, scoring a pair of runs off five walks. Pirates sophomore Joe Ingle, the conference's saves leader (12), issued four of them, including one to RF Luke Maglich for the go-ahead run.
"Usually (Ingle) is on top of his game and he gave us some help there," Kingston said. "Luckily we stayed inside the strike zone and allowed him to help us with disciplined at-bats. At this point, however you get those runs in, that's all that matters."
Enter Sanders, who pitched a scoreless ninth for his first career save after making 14 starts in the regular season. Preceding him was fellow righty Joe Cavallaro, another regular starter who worked a scoreless eighth despite issuing two walks.
"I thought it was encouraging to see guys accept their roles that we flipped this week to try to spark it a little bit. I thought Cavallaro was great and then Phoenix Sanders did exactly what you needed him to do."
SS Kevin Merrell, a first-team pick on the coaches All-AAC team earlier this week, finished 2-for-4 with an RBI-single in USF's two-run seventh. Duke Stunkel's sacrifice fly scored the other run.
"Now we've got Tommy Eveld to give the ball to tomorrow," Kingston said. "So we're gonna continue to play with confidence."
And perhaps some creativity.