A week ago, Belmont’s season was on the brink of coming to an end.
Now the Bruins have made school history.
Belmont punched its ticket to its first NCAA Regional on Saturday when it held off Mercer and won 9-7 victory in the title game of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field.
The Bruins (36-24) had reached the tournament championship game just once before – in 2007 – and are the first sixth seed to capture the crown in eight years.
They clinched the sixth and final spot with two wins in last weekend’s final regular-season series against league-leading Stetson. Once in the tournament, they went 4-0 – with two wins over fourth-seeded Mercer – and became the first sixth seed in 14 years to go undefeated.
The Bruins, who failed to qualify for the league tournament last year, will find out where they will be placed in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field on Monday.
“This is crazy right here,” Belmont third baseman Zac Mitchell said. “I never thought at the beginning of the year we’d come out and do this. But we have been saying all along if you let us in that tournament we are going to win it.”
Deadlocked at 6-6 in the eighth, the Bruins’ Drew Turner drew a leadoff walk and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt.
That set the stage for 5-foot-9 Zac Mitchell, Belmont’s No. 9 hitter. Against closer J.T Odom, who was making his fifth appearance in as many games, Mitchell delivered with a triple off the right field wall that drove in Turner. Tournament MVP Derek Hamblen brought in Mitchell, with what ultimately was the game-winning run, with a sacrifice fly to center field.
“People say [Mitchell] doesn’t have much power. Well he drilled a home run [Friday] and he hit one off the wall [Saturday] for a triple. That kid is a special player,” Hamblen said. “He is a fighter. We call them in baseball, a ‘dirt bag.’ He plays really hard all the time.”
Clinging to that two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, Belmont turned to closer Jon Ivie. After he gave up consecutive walks with one out, the senior right-hander settled in and got Mercer slugger Jacob Tanis to look at the called third strike.
Ivie then picked up his 13th save – tying a program high – of the season when he forced a grounder from Joe Winker. First baseman Nate Woods scooped up the ball and tossed it to Ivie, who stepped on first base for the final out.
That cleared out the Belmont dugout as the Bruins celebrated in the middle of the infield.
“This team has had their backs against the wall since we started out 3-8 in conference play,” Belmont’s 14th-year head coach Dave Jarvis said. “To be able to come through this big under these circumstances over and over and over again, I mean that takes a lot of character guys. No doubt about it.”
Belmont jumped on defending tournament champ Mercer (39-20) in the first inning. The Bruins collected five hits and scored four runs before Bears starter Brandon Love recorded an out. At that point, he was pulled for reliever D.J. Johnson.
Love, Mercer’s ace, was pitching on two days rest after he went 6 2/3 innings on Wednesday. Belmont added one more run in the frame and led 5-0 after half an inning.
Mercer responded, though. The Bears loaded the bases in each of the next four innings. It scored two in the first, one in the second and two in the third. It finally pulled even when Billy Burns knocked a two-out, RBI-single off reliever James Buckelew.
“They got up and punched us right in the nose,” Jarvis said. “So I think that is a tremendous competitor we have right across the field there in Mercer. These kids, in their resolve, they didn’t let that shake them when Mercer came right back and grinded on us and tied the game.
“We were going to find a way to win.”
• Four Bruins made the all-tournament team. Hamblen, Belmont’s senior left fielder, led the way as the tournament MVP. The Bruins’ leadoff hitter finished the week with six hits, five RBIs, two home runs and seven runs scored.
Also selected was pitcher Chase Brookshire, who tossed a complete game on Thursday against Kennesaw State. Catcher Matt Zeblo (six hits, eight RBIs and two home runs) and Mitchell (four hits, three RBIs and one homer) were also honored.
• Craig, Woods and Tim Egerton each led Belmont’s offense with two hits. The Bruins used five pitchers as starter Josh Davis last just two innings. Garrett Fanchier (4-3) picked up the win as he pitched 1 1/3 innings of one-hit, one- run ball to set up Ivie.
• Belmont has won six straight and 11 of its last 14. The Bruins are 18-5 in their last 23 games against A-Sun opponents.
• Belmont might not have to venture far for its first regional. Second-ranked Vanderbilt will most likely host an NCAA Regional. The tournament committee could keep Belmont close to home.
But Austin Peay captured the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title on Saturday. The committee might not put three in-state teams in the same regional – especially since Austin Peay and Belmont most likely will be positioned as No. 4 seeds.
Belmont lost 6-2 to Vanderbilt back in February.
“That would be awesome to have another shot at them,” Mitchell said, “to see their No. 1 [pitcher Sonny Gray] versus our No. 1 [pitcher Matt Hamann].”