One of Mercer’s best baseball games across the board this season couldn’t have come at a better time.
It led to a 14-5 romp over Samford on Thursday night at Claude Smith Field that earned the Bears a share of the Southern Conference regular-season championship in their first season in the conference.
Mercer (30-20, 15-6 conference) got solid pitching from senior Eric Nyquist, 14 hits -- two home runs among them --and near spotless defense in the victory. Even the Bears’ outs were productive, with five runs scoring on ground outs or sacrifice bunts.
“It was probably one of the better games we’ve had,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “Eric was really good and we had some big hits, executed really well with the bat when we needed to and got a great effort defensively.
“We had to play well because they’re a really good team.”
Another win by Mercer or a loss by Wofford (12-8 conference) in its three-game series at last-place East Tennessee State will give the Bears the title alone.
“Winning (Thursday) took a lot of pressure off,” said catcher Charlie Madden, whose three-run home run in the eighth inning topped off the victory and gave him a career-best six runs batted in for a game. “We can look forward to (Friday) to win (the title) on Senior Day for those guys.”
Devin Bonin had four singles, three runs scored and another knocked in for the Bears. Kyle Lewis had two hits, including his 15th homer of the season, and three runs batted in.
Jackson Ware, Howard Joe and Madden also had two hits each. Mercer broke the game open by scoring a dozen runs in its final four at-bats started by a four-run fifth.
T.J. Dawson had four hits to lead Samford (28-23, 13-9), which had 14 overall. Four of those hits came from the first four hitters of the game for two runs, making a rocky start for Nyquist.
The senior right-hander shook it off to go 7-2/3 innings to up his record to 7-2. He allowed a dozen hits, but he gave up just three more runs before departing.
“They came out and hit him in the mouth, but he responded and was good for another six innings,” Gibson said. “We’ve been good (in series openers). I think we’re 7-1 with him now.”
After the first, the Bulldogs didn’t get Nyquist again until the sixth inning facing a 6-2 deficit.
“He was sharp in the bullpen, so I could tell he was going to be good,” Madden said. “They just came out swinging, but he came back. He started throwing strikes, and when he missed they were good misses, down or outside and not on the plate.”
Said Nyquist, “I knew they’d come out hitting. I didn’t get down. I still felt good and just trusted what I was doing. I started getting ahead of them after (the first), and I knew the offense would pick us up.”
Mercer answered Samford’s two-run first with a pair in the bottom of the inning, the runs scoring on ground outs.
“That was a huge confidence boost for me,” Nyquist said of the Bears’ quick response.
It stayed that way until the Bears broke through against starter and loser Alex Ledford (7-5) with four runs in the fifth on three hits, a walk and a hit batter. Madden had a two-run single with two outs to cap the inning.
The Bears turned it into a rout with two more in the sixth and three each in the seventh and eighth. Lewis accounted for the runs in the sixth with his homer.
The runs in the seventh came on a pair of safety squeeze bunts, one by Madden, and Bonin’s fourth single of the night. The catcher’s eighth homer capped the Bears’ scoring in the eighth.
“I was thinking I had some pretty good at-bats,” said Madden, a sophomore who had a sacrifice bunt and walk before the two-run single and the squeeze bunt. “The last one (homer), I just got lucky.”