In its first season in the Southern Conference, the Mercer baseball team will play for the tournament championship Sunday.
And with that championship would come the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
The Bears, who won the regular-season title, beat The Citadel 8-1 on Saturday in the semifinals in Charleston, South Carolina. The Bears (34-21) also beat the Bulldogs in their first game in the tournament.
Mercer, which will face Samford at 2 p.m. on Sunday, is the first conference team to reach the championship game in its first season since UNC Greensboro in 1998.
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“It is going to be another great ballgame (Sunday), as we’ll face the winner of two outstanding clubs,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “We are hoping we have one great game left in us to claim the SoCon title.”
Saturday’s game was scoreless into the fifth inning. The Bears were no-hit through the first four innings, but they responded with six runs on six hits in the fifth to take control. The Bears added two more in the eighth on a triple by Charlie Madden and a home run by Danny Edgeworth.
That was more than enough for senior pitcher DJ Johnson. Making just his eighth start, Johnson went seven-plus innings and kept the Bulldogs in control throughout, at one time retiring 15 straight batters.
He left the game with no outs in the eighth and two runners on, but Mitchell Wade and Morgan Pittman came on to get the Bears out of the jam, allowing just one run.
Johnson was charged with the run, but he struck out six with no walks and allowed four hits.
“DJ Johnson was phenomenal (Saturday) afternoon, coming through with several special moments when we needed him the most,” Gibson said. “Devin Bonin made arguably the play of the game with a great catch in the fifth inning, and of course, we grinded out several great at-bats before Kyle Lewis hit the ball down the corner to really turn the game in our favor.”
Mercer’s baseball team has gone to the NCAA tournament twice: 2010 and 2013. It is trying to become the first Mercer program this season to win both the conference regular-season and tournament titles. The men’s soccer team won the regular-season title but lost in the tournament championship game. The women’s program won the tournament title to advance to the NCAA tournament, losing at Florida in the first round.
If Mercer can win Sunday, it would be the first Southern Conference baseball team to pull off the regular-season and tournament double since The Citadel in 2010.