NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Belmont baseball team (36-24, 17-13) won its first ever Atlantic Sun Conference Championship, defeating Mercer (39-20, 17-12) by a score of 9-7 on Saturday afternoon. The Bruins went a perfect 4-0 through the A-Sun Tournament to claim the title and earn their first berth into an NCAA Regional.
The Bruin bats had yet to be quiet in this A-Sun Tournament, but the first inning of Saturday's championship game was something else entirely. Taking on the Bears' ace, left-hander Brandon Love, Belmont recorded hits on the first five at bats of the game, including a trio of doubles.
Senior Derek Hamblen (Plano, Texas) led things off with a double off the left field wall, before advancing to third on a bunt single by junior Dylan Craig (Signal Mountain, Tenn.). Senior Nate Woods (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) drove in the first run of the game on a single to right field, and then scored with Craig on a double by senior Matt Zeblo (Raleigh, N.C.).
It marked the fourth double of the tournament for Zeblo, who tallied his championship-leading seventh and eighth runs batted in. The Bruin catcher then scored from second on the third Belmont double of the inning, a shot to the center field warning track by senior Tim Egerton (Smyrna, Tenn.). The fifth and final run of the opening frame came on an RBI single to left by sophomore Judah Akers (Cookeville, Tenn.).
After a pair of empty frames for the Bruins, and five Mercer runs over their first three innings, Belmont took the lead back on Craig's second hit of the game. The BU center fielder made it 6-5 with a double down the right field line, driving in sophomore Jared Breen (Marietta, Ga.), who walked to lead off the fourth inning.
Sophomore Josh Davis (Fayetteville, Ga.) started on the mound for the first time since a May 14 loss to Florida Gulf Coast, and allowed the five runs over the first three innings. A pair of freshmen, James Buckelew (Suwanne, Ga.) and Blake Harvey (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), came in to pitch a combined four and two thirds innings of shutout baseball before Harvey allowed the Bears to tie the game at 6-6 on a wild pitch.
Davis, who replaced Akers as the designated hitter after being relieved of pitching duties, led off the eighth with a walk. Sophomore Drew Turner (Shelbyville, Tenn.) then pinch ran for Davis and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Breen.
With one out and one on, Mercer closer J.T. Odom came in to keep things tied at 6-6. Odom has appeared in every tournament game for the Bears, and has been successful in each except for the two run homer he gave up to Hamblen in the last contest between BU and Mercer. The Bruins got the best of Odom again, as junior Zac Mitchell (Cordova, Tenn.) tripled off the right field wall to drive in Turner. The Belmont third baseman then scored on a sacrifice fly by Hamblen to make it 8-6.
The Bruins allowed one run in the bottom of the eighth that cut the lead to one, at 8-7, but then added an insurance run in the top of the ninth when Turner walked with the bases loaded. Woods led off the ninth with a double, and ended up scoring after Zeblo was hit by a pitch, Egerton sacrificed, freshman Greg Brody (Dacula, Ga.) walked, and eventually Turner walked.
Considering the amount of offense that had been showcased in this championship contest, there was still a lot of game left heading into the bottom of the ninth. Senior Jon Ivie (Summertown, Tenn.) came in to close the game, relieving junior Garrett Fanchier (Lebanon, Tenn.). After getting the first batter to fly out, Ivie walked two consecutive Bears. He then struck out All Atlantic-Sun third baseman Jacob Tanis, and retired Winker on a ground out to first to give Belmont the 9-7 victory.
BU finished with nine runs on 13 hits and two errors. Six different Bruins recorded doubles in the win, while Mitchell tallied a triple for Belmont. Fanchier earned the victory after allowing one run on one hit in one and one third inning of relief. Ivie's save was his 13th of the season, tying a Belmont single-season record. He now has 24 in his career, one shy of tying the all-time mark in BU history.
The Bruins' championship run marked the first Atlantic Sun Conference Championship by a six seed since Jacksonville in 2003. Also, it was the first time a six seed had gone undefeated in the tournament since Central Florida did back in 1995. BU, which started 3-8 in conference play, has now won 18 of its last 23 games against A-Sun opponents.
Four Belmont players were named to the All-Tournament Team following the victory. Sophomore Chase Brookshire (Chattanooga, Tenn.), Zeblo, Mitchell, and Hamblen received the honors, while Hamblen was also named Tournament Most Valuable Player. The Belmont left fielder was the only player two record multiple home runs and finished with six hits, five RBI, and seven runs scored on the week.
The Bruins will now move on to play in an NCAA Regional for the first time in program history. The full NCAA field will be revealed on Monday, May 30. Belmont will be one of four teams to play in a double elimination tournament from June 3-6 with hopes of moving on to a Super Regional the following weekend.