HATTIESBURG, Miss. (Release via ODU Athletics)– One of the nation’s best home run hitting teams may have ensured itself a place in the NCAA Baseball Tournament Friday afternoon on the strength of its big bats.
Carter Trice blasted a grand slam over the left field fence, and Andy Garriola added a two-run home run two batters later, in a six-run fourth inning that powered Old Dominion past Charlotte, 13-4, in a Conference USA Tournament elimination game.
The Monarchs (40-16) face a difficult path to the C-USA championship. They must defeat Louisiana Tech twice on Saturday, with the first game set to begin at 10 a.m. Eastern time, to get to Sunday’s championship game. LA Tech defeated the Monarchs, 7-2, on Thursday.
But their path back to the NCAA Tournament looks a lot clearer.
Coach Chris Finwood said ODU needed to win two C-USA Tournament games to wrap up an NCAA bid and the Monarchs have now done that – they defeated Middle Tennessee 18-7 in the C-USA opener on Wednesday.
Among the metrics the committee considers is how well you’ve played late in the season and ODU has won nine of its last 10 games. ODU has a sparkling resume otherwise, including a 9-2 victory at Virginia, a two-game sweep of East Carolina and two victories in a three-game series at Southern Miss, all ranked among the nation’s top 22 teams in the NCAA RPI.
ODU was 44-16 a year ago when the Monarchs lost to Virginia in an NCAA Regional final. This is the first time ODU has had back to back 40-win seasons since 1985-86.
Conference USA was also ranked the nation’s fifth-best conference nationally, and No. 1 among mid-majors, in the NCAA RPI heading into the tournament.
“That was as big-time performance as I’ve ever seen from an ODU baseball team,” said Finwood, who is in his 11th season at ODU. “It was a must-win for us to keep winning in this tournament and in our season and they got it done.”
Asked if he thinks ODU is in the NCAA Tournament, he said: “I do. I don’t mind saying it. If we’re not I don’t know what else we can do. We made it to the semifinals and went 2-2 at worst. We won 40 games.
“I don’t know how 40-17 doesn’t get you in the tournament in the fifth-best league in the country. They could cut it up however they want, but we beat a lot of good people this year.
“If it doesn’t get us in, then Conference USA should be ashamed of itself. They should be battling like crazy to get us in. We’re such a good league this year, we should get four teams in. We deserve to get four.”
ODU’s bats had been relatively silent – the Monarchs trailed 3-1 – until the bottom of the fourth when they began a rally with two outs and no one on base.
Second baseman Chris Dengler walked and then on a play that should have ended the inning, two Charlotte infielders got crossed up.
Tommy Bell sent a ground ball deep into the left-side of the infield, but third baseman Jack Dragum stepped in front of shortstop Austin Knight, who never got his glove down. The ball rolled into left field and Bell was awarded a single.
Pitcher Hale Sims, who had thrown exceptionally well, then walked Thomas Wheeler to load the bases. It was the 41st consecutive game in which Wheeler has reached first base at least once.
After Sims threw ball one to Trice, Charlotte then went to its bullpen, calling on Tony Rossi.
Trice sent the first pitch from Rossi well over the left-field fence for a grand slam that gave ODU its first lead in two days. It was Trice’s second grand slam of the season and second of the tournament for ODU, as catcher Brock Gagliardi hit one on Wednesday. Rossi then walked Matt Coutney, the C-USA Player of the Year, bringing Garriola, ODU’s all-time home run leader, to the plate.
Garriola then sent a line drive high off the scoreboard, his 24th home run of the season, to make it 7-4.
Trice said the scouting report showed that Rossi threw him nothing but sliders when the teams met earlier this year, so he was waiting for a slider.
“He hung it and I got a good piece of it,” said Trice, a sophomore from Mechanicsville, Virginia. “It felt good to get everyone kind of going. After that, Andy homered and the wheels started spinning.”
ODU starter Sam Armstrong threw well after giving up three runs on three hits in the top of the first, including a two-run home run by Dragum. However, with Charlotte up 3-1, and two runners on base and no outs in the top of the third, Finwood went to his bullpen, calling on hard-throwing left-hander Jacob Gomez.
Gomez took over a 2-0 count and walked Cam Fisher to load the bases. But he then struck out Jake Cunningham and Josh Madole and forced Will Butcher to fly out to end what could have been a disastrous inning.
Gomez (5-1) picked up the victory and he deserved it. He went four innings, allowing just one run and striking out five.
He said when he came in, “I knew I had to help Sam Armstrong out. That’s my job. I just focused on getting outs.
“Winning this game feels great. We’re built to win games like this.”
He was replaced by reliever Jason Hartline, who shut the 49ers down in the seventh and eighth.
Noah Dean relieved Hartline in the ninth and retired the 49ers on 12 pitches.
ODU padded its advantage to 9-4 in the fifth. Designated hitter Robbie Petracci reached first on a throwing error, third baseman Kenny Levari singled to center and second baseman Chris Dengler hit a double deep to center field to score both of them.
ODU didn’t need them but scored four insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth.
Coutney drove a double to right center that scored Wheeler. Lincoln Ransom, who pinch hit for Petracci, then drove home Trice and Coutney to make it 12-4. Levari then singled to left, scoring Ransom.
Bell was 3-for-3 before being subbed for with a pinch-runner. Trice was 3-for-5 and scored two runs.
The loss ended the season for Charlotte (36-22), which has no hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Trice said he’s not yet focused on the NCAA Tournament and said the most important thing was extending the season with his teammates.
“We want to continue to play baseball and have fun and spend time with each other,” he said. “The committee is going to do its thing. But if we win the whole thing, then we know we’re in.
“We’ve got two games tomorrow and another game Sunday. Let’s do it. Let’s win the whole thing.”