Mercer clinches Southern Conference baseball title

Mercer needs to carve out some space on the outfield wall at Claude Smith Field. There’s another championship pennant to hang.

The Bears rallied Friday night to claim an 8-5 victory over Samford to win the Southern Conference regular-season title outright in their debut season. Mercer (31-20, 16-6) departed the A-Sun after last season.

“I thought we’d be able to pitch and defend well enough, but you really never know about a league until you get in it and play,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said as his players spewed champagne over each other and in the air in the outfield. “We’ve been in some close games and been fortunate to get wins in a lot of those. It just happened that we came out on top (overall).”

The win came on senior night, and veterans had key hands in the outcome, especially on the mound. Designated hitter Nate Moorhouse had two hits, including a home run that tied the game early, and senior hurlers Grant Papelian, Mitchell Wade, Morgan Pittman and Dimitri Kourtis held the high-powered Samford offense in check enough for the win.

“The seniors really played well for us,” Gibson said. “I’m so happy for this group. They’ve done a lot of winning here, and this (title) adds to it.”

This win came courtesy of an eighth-inning surge that snapped a tie at 5. Sophomore catcher Charlie Madden had the big hit of the three-run inning when center fielder T.J. Dixon lost Madden’s high fly with the bases loaded leading to a two-run double.

“Winning the championship for (seniors) on their day was the main thing for us (Friday),” said Madden, who also had a single. “Getting to celebrate with them was awesome.”

Kourtis, whose appearance at Alabama on Tuesday was his first since early in April, pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth after Samford (28-24, 13-10) tied the game with three runs in the seventh. The right-hander faced seven hitters and struck out four to win for the third time in four decisions.

“It’s definitely going to be a confidence-booster,” Madden said of having a healthy Kourtis.

Kourtis and his three predecessors stranded 13 runners on base.

“They’re a really good offensive team,” Gibson said. “We dodged a lot of bullets, but that says something about our guys.”

Hunter Swilling’s conference-leading 16th home run with two out in the third gave Samford a 1-0 lead. Moorhouse tied the game with his fourth an inning later.

Samford went back on top 2-1 in the fifth before the Bears scored three in the fifth and another in the sixth on home runs. Kyle Lewis tied Swilling for the conference lead with a two-run shot that keyed the fifth while Jackson Ware led off the seventh with his fifth blast.

The Bulldogs tied it with three in the seventh before the Bears responded with three of their own in the eighth against a pair of relievers. Madden’s one-out game-winning hit came off loser Mikel Belcher (0-1) after a hit batter, walk and single loaded the bases.

“I was just looking to get something in the air,” the catcher said. “I knew it was deep enough when I hit it, then (Dixon) just lost it.”

Mercer entered the day needing the win or a loss by Wofford at East Tennessee. About the time Madden’s double fell behind Dixon, the Buccaneers finished off a 6-3 win to make the Mercer outcome academic.

“We wanted to go out and win it ourselves,” Madden said. “This reaffirms how good we are when we play together.”