Rainfall peppered Mercer’s Claude Smith Field on Sunday afternoon.
The precipitation, however, was unable to dampen the Bears’ chances of winning a weekend series against perennial Southern Conference frontrunner Western Carolina, as a 5-3 victory gave Mercer its second win in the three-game weekend series.
The victory moves Mercer (22-15, 9-3 conference) into sole possession of first place in the conference standings, two games in front of Western Carolina (15-16, 7-5), who was a game back of the Bears entering the weekend.
“To win the championship, you have to go through those guys,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “We still have a lot of baseball left, but to win two out of three against the defending champions, we’re really pleased.”
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Mercer finished off the series win Sunday with yet another round of strong pitching. Other than the first two innings of Friday’s 11-8 win, the Bears pitching staff gave up a combined seven runs in the weekend series. That effort continued Sunday.
A scoreless first inning by starting pitcher Eric Nyquist, who started Friday’s game but was unable get out of the first inning in that appearance, was followed up by regular Sunday starting pitcher Ryan Askew, who gave up a run and three hits in 4-2/3 innings. Five Bears pitchers held the Catamounts to three runs Sunday, with DJ Johnson coming on in the ninth to record to game’s final out to get his first save of the season.
Mitchell Wade (2-1), who replaced Askew in the sixth inning, was credited with the win.
“Just throwing a lot of strikes,” said Askew of the Bears’ pitching success. “That’s Coach (Brent) Shade’s philosophy, don’t walk people. We don’t want to walk people, we want to force them to get themselves out.”
The Catamounts were unable to get much offensive momentum against Askew thanks in part to his battery mate. Mercer catcher Charlie Madden threw out three Western Carolina runners attempting to steal second base.
Western Carolina broke through in the sixth on a Danny Bermudez double to bring in Bradley Strong, who reached on an error to tie a game that had been 1-0 Mercer since a first-inning single by Kyle Lewis to score Matt Meeder, who singled and advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw.
Mercer reclaimed the lead on a two-out RBI single by Howard Joe to score Jackson Ware in the sixth. The Bears added three more in the seventh for a cushion, two runs thanks to a Devin Bonin homer, with Ware ripping an RBI double for the final Mercer run.
That advantage was enough for Mercer’s bullpen, which stood tall once again. Mitchell Wade and Austin Lord each recorded two outs before giving way to Ben Lumsden, who threw 1-2/3 innings before Johnson was called upon with two outs after a solo homer by Matt Smith and a pair of two-out singles sliced the Mercer lead to 5-3.
Western Carolina’s second run came in the eighth on a Strong single against Lord, who was then relieved by Lumsden.