SUGAR LAND – For a second-straight year, Sam Houston State fell behind four runs early to Southeastern Louisiana in the Southland Conference Tournament. As was the case again, the Bearkats responded.
Three-seed Sam Houston outscored the two-seeded Lions by eight after the first inning, capturing an 8-4 win on Thursday afternoon at Constellation Field. The Kats five-through-seven hitters, Robie Rojas, Blake Chisolm and Hunter Hearn combined to go 9-for-11, tallying four RBIs and seven runs.
Sam Houston reliever Kyle Backhus (4-4) was dominant in four innings, fanning six while holding the Lions to one hit and a walk. The southpaw used 60 pitches to retire 12 of 14 hitters faced, making way for Nick Mikolajchak, who struck out a pair and stranded one in the ninth.
The Bearkats (38-20) advance to Friday's 4 p.m. tournament semifinals to face the winner of two-seed Southeastern Louisiana (36-19) and seven-seed New Orleans. The Lions and Privateers will face off at 9 a.m. on Friday. The victor between the two must defeat the Kats twice.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Southeastern Louisiana jumped on top in the opening frame, taxing starter Hayden Wesneski for 33 pitches. The Lions took advantage of a walk and single with one down as Carson Crites lifted a three-run home run over the wall in left.
Webb Bobo followed, fighting off a 1-2 pitch for a single up the middle and after an intentional walk to Drew Avans, Daniel Wasinger hit a dribbler up the middle that could not be fielded by second baseman Riley McKnight, plating Bobo for a 4-0, Lions advantage.
The Bearkats answered in the second as Rojas moved to 5-for-5 in the tournament, shooting a one-out single up the middle. The senior swiped second and advanced to third on a wild pitch, allowing Chisolm to connect on a run-scoring single into right.
Hearn followed, lining a double down the left field line past the diving Taylor Schwaner at third base. As the ball rolled around in left, the Bearkats sent Chisolm who slid in safely as Hearn took third. The throw from Wasinger skipped into left, allowing Hearn to score, trimming the deficit to 4-3.
Wesneski recorded two quick outs on three pitches but Southeastern threatened to break the game open again in the third. The Lions loaded the bases on a single, intentional walk and error but the right-hander induced an inning-ending groundout to Andrew Fregia, eliminating the threat.
The Bearkats took advantage of a Chisolm hit by pitch in the fourth. Hearn found the gap in right center and Chisolm was able to beat the throw home, sending Hearn to third on the throw with the game knotted 4-4. Jaxxon Grisham gave the Bearkats the lead, bouncing an RBI groundout to the right side.
Sam Houston recorded three-straight singles to add another in the sixth as Hearn again produced, sending a single through the left side, scoring Rojas to give the Kats a 6-4 lead. The squad found more insurance in the eighth, as Grisham recorded a two-out RBI single and Riley McKnight overcame a 0-2 hole to work a full-count bases-loaded walk.
OTHER NOTEABLES IN THE WIN
With a 3-for-4 performance, Robie Rojas is now 7-for-8 through two games at the Southland Conference Tournament. Sam Houston's 5-6-7 hitters – Rojas, Blake Chisolm and Hunter Hearn – have contributed 17 of the Kats' 25 hits in the two wins and have plated 11 of the team's 21 runs.
After tossing a combined seven scoreless frames against McNeese and Houston, Kyle Backhus entered Thursday having allowed nine runs in his last 8 2-3 innings. The freshman got back to his dominance against the Lions, recording his most strikeouts since fanning seven on March 23 against Buffalo.
Thursday's win was eerily similar to that of last year's Southland Tournament championship between the two teams. As was the case last year, the Kats fell behind 4-0 early. For a second straight season, it was also Rojas and Hearn doing the big damage. The duo finished 4-for-7 with three RBIs a season ago.
Head coach Matt Deggs on the victory…
“It was two really good teams going toe-to-toe. I've got a lot of respect for those guys. They play hard and play the game the right way. It could have gone either way. I thought it was a great fight. We were fortunate enough to scratch a few runs at the end. I thought we got some really good performances out of three freshmen. They punched out us right in the mouth but this team has no flinch in them.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on overcoming an early 4-0 deficit…
“They're going rise to the occasion, accept the challenge and keep grinding and pressing forward. There was no talk. We just came in and got our stuff on. Their guy Gaconi got us out in the first inning but we were able to come back in the second which was huge.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on the outing from Kyle Backhus…
“He pounded the strikezone. It was the best I've seen him do all year long. He did so with some arrogance and attitude. There was a lot of intent behind every pitch he threw. He is growing up.”
Hunter Hearn on the victory and the comeback…
“We didn't really talk about falling behind. It happened to us last year. We came right back and punched them in the mouth. That's the biggest part about baseball, and life, having to respond. Any time you get down, you have to come back. We were able to relax and play the game.”
Reliever Kyle Backhus on his effectiveness and the victory…
“Any time we throw up zeroes, we have a chance. That was my mindset. I kept throwing two-seam fastballs. That was my pitch today. That really helped and gave me confidence. It was inning by inning. Coach tells to go an inning at a time.”