KODAK, Tenn. --- Tusculum scored six runs in the top of the eighth inning to erase a 2-1 deficit and defeat Wingate 7-2 in the Pilot/Flying J South Atlantic Conference Baseball Championship tournament Friday evening at Smokies Stadium.
The seventh-seeded Pioneers (25-25) advance to play Saturday at 7:30 p.m. against the winner of Friday's late game between third-seeded Carson-Newman and fourth-seeded Lincoln Memorial. The second-seeded Bulldogs (34-16) will play top-seeded Catawba in an elimination game on Saturday at noon.
Lefthander Andrew Willis (1-0) capped his return from a scary early-season injury by striking out seven in four scoreless innings of relief for the Pioneers, escaping jams in both the sixth and seventh innings to keep the Tusculum deficit at one run. Willis allowed three hits and walked none in relief of Charles Hall, who gave up two runs on two hits in five-plus innings just a few hours after earning the save in the Pioneers' 5-2 win over Newberry in their rain-delayed tournament opener Friday morning.
Colby Skeen went 3-for-5 and doubled in the tying run in the eighth inning, while Trey Hinton and Nate Montgomery each had two-run singles as the Pioneers sent 11 batters to the plate and scored six runs on five hits against three Bulldog pitchers. Montgomery and Bryson Ford each went 2-for-5 with two RBIs and a run scored for the Pioneers, while Daulton Martin was 2-for-3 with two walks as part of an 11-hit attack.
Wingate's lone runs came in the bottom of the third inning on a two-run single by McCann Mellett, as the Bulldogs finished with just five hits in the game. Trent Wynn finished 2-for-4 with a double and Brett Branton was 1-for-3 with a run scored for the Bulldogs, who were 17-10 in the SAC in the regular season but lost two of their three meetings with the Pioneers.
After a scoreless first inning, the Pioneers took a 1-0 lead against Bulldog starter Hunter Morgan (6-3) in the second as Zack Finchum led off with a single, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Garrett Dupuis and took third on a groundout by Hinton. Ford then singled to right to knock in Finchum with the first run of the game.
Hall worked around a leadoff walk in the second, but ran into trouble in the third as Wynn led off with a double and Branton followed with a walk. Justin Guy was hit by a pitch to load the bases with no outs, but Ty Andrus hit a comebacker that was turned into a forceout at the plate. Mellett then dropped a single into right to drive home Branton and Guy and give Wingate a 2-1 lead.
The Pioneers threatened in the fourth as Skeen led off with a single and Finchum reached on a throwing error by Morgan to put runners at second and third with nobody out. However, Skeen was thrown out at the plate on a grounder to third by Dupuis, and the next two batters were retired to end the inning.
In the sixth, Skeen led off by reaching on an infield single and took second on a sacrifice by Finchum. Dupuis advanced Skeen to third on a groundout, but Morgan induced another groundball out to keep the Wingate lead at 2-1.
Hall reached the end of the evening in the sixth as Mellett walked and Tyler Schneider was hit by a pitch. Willis came on in relief and saw the runners move into scoring position on a passed ball, but retired the next three batters on a strikeout and two groundouts to maintain the Pioneers' one-run deficit.
Wingate kicked up a rally in the bottom of the seventh as Wynn singled and Branton was safe on a bunt single. Willis escaped unscathed by again retiring three straight batters on two strikeouts and a fly ball as the Pioneers continued to trail 2-1 heading to the eighth.
Montgomery started the Pioneer rally in the eighth with a leadoff single, and came all the way around to score on a double by Skeen which tied the game at 2-2. Finchum was hit by a pitch, and Dupuis was safe on a sacrifice bunt attempt to load the bases with nobody out. Wingate summoned Alex Rodriguez from the bullpen, and was greeted by a single from Hinton which scored Skeen and Finchum to give Tusculum a 4-2 lead.
Ford extended the Tusculum lead to 5-2 with an RBI single that knocked in Dupuis, and a sacrifice bunt by Seth DeHaven was followed by an intentional walk to Martin to load the bases. Rodriguez got the second out on a strikeout, but Montgomery came through with a two-run single that drove home Hinton and Ford and pushed the Pioneer lead to 7-2.
Willis closed out the Bulldogs from there, working around a leadoff single by Schneider in the eighth by striking out a pair and then setting down Wingate in order in the ninth on two strikeouts and a popup.
Dupuis finished the game with three sacrifice bunts, breaking the program single-game record of two that had been set 36 times since 1994, most recently by Kevin Victoriano against Wingate on April 2, 2016. Tusculum finished the game with five sacrifices, tying the school single-game mark set against Milligan on April 30, 1997 and equaled against Anderson on March 28, 2015.
Morgan pitched seven-plus innings for the Bulldogs, giving up five runs on eight hits with four strikeouts and a walk. Rodriguez allowed two runs on three hits in 2/3 of an inning, with Lane Wildman and David Nash combining to retire four of the final five Tusculum hitters.