HATTIESBURG, Mississippi (Release via ODU Athletics) – Old Dominion baseball coach Chris Finwood thinks his team needs to win two games in the Conference USA Tournament to be assured of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
If so, the Monarchs are halfway there.
ODU hit five home runs, including two from second baseman Chris Dengler, and a grand slam from senior catcher Brock Gagliardi, to power past Middle Tennessee, 18-7, Wednesday morning at Pete Taylor Park at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The Monarchs meet Louisiana Tech Thursday at 5 p.m. in a second-round game. LA Tech defeated Charlotte, 4-0, Wednesday night. The game is a rematch of last year’s conference championship game, which the Monarchs won on LA Tech’s home field.
A victory would give ODU Friday off and send the Monarchs directly into Saturday’s semifinals.
It would have been difficult to script a better opening game for the Monarchs (39-15), who have won eight in a row.
The 10-run mercy rule was in effect, and after reliever Jason Hartline forced a fly out in the top of the seventh, with ODU leading by 11, the game was called. That means ODU saved two innings of work from its bullpen in a tournament in which you must win at least four games in five days to claim a championship.
ODU pounded out 14 hits, including eight for extra bases.
“We got back to really swinging the bats well like we had earlier in the season,” Finwood said. “We went through a little bit of a lull there. Some of that was facing really good pitching. Some of it was our guys were a little tired.
“But when you get in the tournament, everyone gets a little bit of a jolt of energy. It’s a whole new season.
“Man, we came out with thunder in our bats today.”
And at an early hour. The game began at 9:05 a.m. local time and the Monarchs arrived at the stadium at 6:30 a.m., shortly after the sun rose.
Finwood brought his team out for practice at the same hour on Tuesday to get them accustomed to playing so early in the morning.
“We’re a veteran team,” Gagliardi said. “Last year we played the 8 a.m. game in the first round, so we’ve been here. We came out fired up and ready to go.”
The list of ODU’s heroes was long. Gagliardi had two hits, three runs and four RBIs and walked twice. Matt Coutney, the C-USA Player of the Year, had four hits, two runs and three RBIs.
Dengler had two hits, three runs and four RBIs. His two home runs doubled his career total to four.
Coutney and Levari had home runs, in addition to Gagliardi and Dengler.
Freshman Blake Morgan did not have his best outing of the season yet ran his record to 8-0 after giving up three earned runs in 5 2/3 innings.
Trice got things started in the first when he walked and stole second. Coutney then drove him in with a single. Trice easily beat the throw to home plate, but
Coutney tried to score on the throw home but was thrown out by first baseman Briggs Rutter
But the Monarchs weren’t done. Andy Garriola then reached base on an error and Gagliardi walked. Levari then drilled a long home run to left that bounced off a light pole to make it 4-0.
Middle Tennessee then quickly narrowed the lead to 4-3 in the top of the second.
Morgan got the first five runners on quick outs and thought he had strike three on Middle Tennessee’s Brett Coker, as he began to head to the bench. It was called a ball, however, and on the next pitch, Coker landed safely on first on a throwing error by Levari.
Right fielder Eston Snider then hit deeply to shortstop for an infield single. Speirs then trimmed the lead to 4-3 with his ninth home run of the season to deep left field.
ODU then blew the game open in the bottom of the fourth, scoring seven runs to take an 11-3 lead.
Trice then walked and Coutney singled to load the bases. Then, on a 3-2 count and with two outs, Gagliardi fouled off a pitch before lofting a towering grand slam home run over the leftfield fence.
All five ODU home runs were hit to left field and Coutney said that wasn’t by accident. With storms predicted for much of Wednesday, a brisk wind blew toward left field.
“I was worried about the weather, but luckily the jet stream was blowing to the left,” he said. “We’re pretty good at hitting the ball that way. It was a good day to hit.”
After Gagliardi’s home run, Middle Tennessee went to its bullpen, subbing Zach Keenan in for Trent Seibert, who got the start because he pitched well against the Monarchs earlier this season.
The change did not stop the Monarchs. Levari walked, Dengler singled and then Trujillo singled to drive Levari in to make it 11-3.
The inning ended only when Trujillo was ruled out while trying to steal second. He appeared to slide under the tag and Finwood challenged the play, but umpires upheld the call after watching the replay.
Middle Tennessee scored three in the top of the sixth to cut the lead to five, but then the Monarchs blew to an 18-7 lead with seven runs in the sixth.
Coutney began the inning with a home run, Dengler then hit a three-run home run and Trice doubled two runners home. In his second at bat of the inning, Coutney singled up the middle to score another run.
“We’re 1-0 and another win closer to working our way to an at-large bid,” Finwood said. “That’s eight in a row for us. And that’s something else (the NCAA) looks out, how you’re playing at the end of the year.”
And the Monarchs are red hot.