MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – At some point this season the Troy baseball team developed a never-say-quit attitude.
That was on display Saturday night with a berth in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game at stake. After coughing up the lead to Arkansas State not once, but twice in the dramatic late innings, the Trojans put that no surrender attitude on display by scoring four times in the 11th inning to down the Red Wolves 12-8.
Troy (36-24) will take on FIU (35-23) on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. for the Sun Belt title and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. The game will be televised live by CSS and CST.
“This tournament has been full of some great baseball games and this was another one to add to the list,” Troy coach Bobby Pierce said. “Both teams battled like champions, played hard and overcame adversity.”
The Trojans had the game Saturday night in hand for seven innings behind senior Andrew Dickinson’s gutty performance on the mound. The senior pitched 6.1 innings and allowed just one unearned run on just two days rest from a Wednesday start, with a relief appearance in between.
The effort had Troy staked to a 6-2 lead going to the eighth inning, which is when the drama started.
“We were cruising there for a while when Andrew was in there, and he wanted to stay in,” Pierce said. “But, we have a lot of confidence in our bull pen and he has pitched a lot this week.”
Junior Nick Ward came on for Dickinson and surrendered a leadoff single and a walk before turning the ball over to closer Chase Whitley (7-3).
The normally untouchable junior got an out on an infield fly, but then walked two straight to force in a run and bring Arkansas State’s biggest power threat to the plate.
ASU first baseman Murray Watts goes 6-foot-7 and tips the scales at well over 250 pounds. He hit a game-winning grand slam homer off Dickinson back on May 14 to lift the Red Wolves to a 5-4 win over Troy, the first ever in the series for ASU.
With Troy leading 6-3, there was thought in the Trojans dugout of walking the ASU big man intentionally, even to force in a run, but instead they decided to go after him. After getting ahead with the first pitch, Whitley ran the count to 1-1 before leaving a changeup over the plate.
Like he did in Troy, Watts didn’t miss the mistake, blasting it for a go-ahead grand slam homer, igniting the Red Wolves fans.
“Coach told me to be very careful and that if I walked him it was OK,” Whitley said. “I wanted to go after him, but I made a mistake and he made me pay for it.”
Facing tournament elimination and the end of their season, the Trojans got a jolt of their own when senior J.R. Myers blasted a solo off ASU ace Andy Ferguson (5-5) to knot the score. Whitley put the Red Wolves down in order in the bottom of the frame to force extra innings.
Daniel Peterson led off the 10th with a single and, after a pair of walks loaded the bases, scored on a sacrifice fly by Whitley to regain the lead 8-7.
Whitley retired the first two hitters in the ASU 10th and was within one out of securing the victory when the Red Wolves Todd Baumgartner blasted a homer to left, keeping the game alive.
The Trojans never flinched, getting a runner on to start the 11th on an error by Watts before a Myers single and a walk to T.J. Rivera loaded the bases. Junior Todd McRae battled Ferguson to a full count before bounding a single over the drawn-in infield to plate two runs. Peterson followed with another hit before Bryant singled in a run and Whitley scored another with a sacrifice fly.
Presented with a third chance to nail down the win, Whitley delivered, retiring ASU in order for the victory.
In addition to earning the win with four innings of relief on the mound, Whitley also drove in four runs in the game on two hits. Peterson had four hits while Myers, Bryant and Steven Felix had three each.
The Trojans, who lost two of three games to FIU back in March in Miami, will take on a Golden Panthers team that has been the talk of the college baseball world because of the hitting of sophomore Garrett Wittles. He enters the title game riding a 53-game streak, which is the second longest in Division I history.
FIU battled back from a loss in the tournament in much the same fashion as Troy, and defeated regular season league champion Florida Atlantic twice to advance to the title game.
All three games between the teams earlier in the year were close, with FIU winning the first two games 4-2 and 7-6 before Troy took the finale 14-12. Historically, the all-time series between the teams is tied at nine wins each, and Troy owns the only win in Sun Belt Tournament play, a 9-4 decision during the Trojans’ 2006 tournament title run.
“FIU has been scoring a lot of runs, like we have,” Pierce said. “I don’t know what they’ve got left to pitch, but I also don’t know what we’ve got left. I am glad to be in the game because you can’t win the tournament without being in the game. I am sure we’ll show up.”