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23 May 2008

Another Thriller: Piazza's Two-out Double Gives Gamecocks Win in Ninth

Jacksonville State leadoff hitter Todd Cunningham, a Jacksonville High product, lays down a sacrifice bunt in the third inning. Photo: Steve Latham/JSU Athletics

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

ADUCAH, Ky. It never ceases to amaze Jacksonville State baseball coach Jim Case how his team continues to find ways to win games.

The Gamecocks were down to their last bats in their Ohio Valley Conference tournament opener Thursday night and a lesser team may have packed it in for the night. But the OVC regular-season champions rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Southeast Missouri 7-6 on Brian Piazza's two-out, two-run double.

The Gamecocks (37-19) will now play fourth-seeded Eastern Illinois (25-28) today at 6:30 p.m. with a spot in Saturday's championship game awaiting the winner.

The victory was JSU's 17th straight, tying the OVC conference record. The Gamecocks also have 25 come-from behind wins this season nine in their last at-bat and five of the walk-off variety.

"We've had a characteristic of doing this," Case said. "Early in the year when we were scuffing, we had so many times that we put ourselves in this position and didn't come through, and then since we've got hot, we've been in this situation a lot and have come through.

"As I told them in the dugout after the game, maybe you guys think I'm crazy when I talk so much about character, but that's one of the reasons we recruit guys with character because they always look for a way to get it done. And to me this team has tremendous character.

"I don't know if we win the tournament or not, but the team has tremendous character and they keep proving it over and over."

The Redhawks (24-25) took a 6-4 lead with two runs off Gamecocks closer Alex Jones in the top of the ninth.

Piazza, a .350 hitter, capped the winning rally after Bert Smith singled home pinch-runner Blake Seguin and OVC co-Player of the Year Clay Whittemore doubled to get the winning run in scoring position.

Curiously, SEMO coach Mark Hogan decided not to intentionally walk the left-handed hitting Piazza to set up a potential game-ending force at any base.

He did walk Piazza intentionally in the eighth inning, then tied 4-4, to get to .290-hitter Kyle McCreary after Whittemore doubled. The Gamecocks eventually loaded the bases with one out, but didn't score.

In the ninth, he let right-hander Todd Strahlendorf pitch to Piazza. The Gamecocks' senior first baseman drove a change-up into the gap to decide the game.

"I'm pretty sure they weren't going to walk me because it'd load the bases," Piazza said. "I know they respect the middle of our lineup, but I thought they were going to come after us. They'd been getting easy outs on us all night, they probably just wanted to see if they could get another one, but it worked out in our favor."

Hogan reacted angrily when SEMO radio play-by-play man Erik Sean quizzed him on the air about passing the pass on Piazza. Hogan later explained he faced a similar situation earlier in his coaching career, intentionally walked a hitter to load the bases and lost the game because of it.

"There were two outs and I wanted to go at him (Piazza)," Hogan explained. "The pressure is on the batter."

Case didn't want to get involved.

"I have so much trouble managing this club, I'm not going to manage his," he said.

JSU built a 4-0 lead after four innings, but the Redhawks tied it in the sixth against reliever Brian Booth.

The Redhawks broke the tie in the top of the ninth on Matt Wagner's RBI single. Jim Klockne scored what seemed to be an insurance run on a wild pitch.

But given their flare for the dramatic all season, the Gamecocks weren't fazed.

"If you were in our dugout the last three innings, even when they scored those two runs, everybody was calm; there was no sense of panic," Whittemore said. "Our confidence is really high. We believe in ourselves. That's what helps you win the close games like this."

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