The USF baseball team’s improbable late-season run now has transitioned from surreal to super.
Facing South Alabama in a weather-delayed, winner-take-all showdown Monday for the NCAA tournament’s Gainesville regional title, the Bulls (31-28) got a career game from redshirt sophomore Jarrett Eaton and a sparkling extended relief effort from closer Orion Kerkering in a 6-4 victory at Florida Ballpark.
USF, winner of nine of its last 11 and 14 of its last 20, faces Texas (45-15) in this weekend’s best-of-three super regional in Austin. The winner reaches the College World Series.
The Bulls never have reached a super regional, much less the CWS, in 13 previous NCAA tournament trips.
“Throughout the year, we weren’t firing on all three cylinders,” said catcher Jake Sullivan, a Durant High alumnus whose team had to win last week’s American Athletic Conference tournament to reach the NCAAs.
“We hit good, we weren’t pitching well. If we were pitching well, we weren’t hitting good or we’re not playing good defense. And these past two weeks, we’ve been firing on all three cylinders, playing the game the right way.”
Monday afternoon’s decisive game, delayed nearly two hours by rain, was set up by the Jaguars’ 4-0 triumph in a game that began Sunday evening but wasn’t completed until Monday due to a Sunday night storm front. That gave both teams one loss in the double-elimination event, setting up the rematch.
“We’ve got a group in that locker room that believes in each other,” said Bulls fourth-year coach Billy Mohl, whose team was 18-22 only a month earlier. “And with all the rain delays and everything else, there was no quit in them.”
In the winner-take-all contest, the Jaguars took a 2-0 lead before USF tied the score in the fourth. The Bulls loaded the bases via a single, error and walk — all with two outs — before Eaton’s hit to deep right bounced over the fence for a two-run ground-rule double.
Eaton, who hails from Mobile (home to South Alabama), added a two-out RBI-single in the sixth. Sullivan provided an insurance run with an eighth-inning sacrifice fly to center, scoring Roberto Pena.
Eaton’s average in American Athletic Conference regular season play: .196.
“I keep thinking about Memphis where he didn’t play a whole lot (in early May), and that wasn’t that long ago,” Mohl said. “And down the stretch, he’s been unbelievable.”
The Bulls further cushioned the lead in the ninth when Eaton (3-for-3) walked and scored after pinch-hitter Drew Brutcher’s single to center was misplayed. Carmine Lane’s sacrifice fly provided the final run.
Kerkering worked 4⅓ innings, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and striking out four in a row at one point.
“Man, he was on fire,” Mohl said. “He came out just filling up the strike zone. The ultimate competitor, had his good stuff working today. Obviously he ran out of gas, but that kid will leave nothing in the tank.”
Kerkering exited after issuing a leadoff walk in the eighth and an RBI-single two batters later. Left-hander Joey Sanchez worked the final 1⅓ innings, his only blemish a solo home run in the ninth.
“This is a special group of guys,” Mohl said. “They’ll forever be known as the first team to get to a super regional. But as they’ll tell you, they’re not done yet.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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