SUGAR LAND -- In the postseason, Kevin Miller simply elevates his game. The senior hit his fourth career home run and third in the tournament in two years, and flashed some serious leather at third to lead the Bearkats to an 8-3 victory over McNeese State in the opening game of the Southland Conference Tournament at Constellation Field.
Miller’s 3-run blast came in the 8th inning, extending a 1-run Bearkat lead to a 7-3 advantage.
“I’m not usually one to get under the ball that much. I guess I missed it you could say, I was just trying to get on top of it and drive it through the infield,” Miller said. “I’m happy it went out. Whenever they walked (Anthony) Azar, I was just trying to do my job and poke it to the outfield.”
In the field he made four outstanding plays behind starting pitcher Tyler Eppler, who worked seven innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of McNeese runs. Eppler, pitching in his more familiar mid-week role, fanned just one while allowing two walks to pick up his fifth win of the season.
The Kats got the scoring started in the second inning when left fielder Luke Plucheck doubled and came around to score on an RBI single by shortstop Carter Burgess. The Bearkats, up 1-0, were unlucky not to add another run in the frame. Burgess was at third base when a wild pitch got past the McNeese catcher. The ball bounced off the wall and came right back to the catcher, who tagged out Burgess.
Eppler was perfect through four innings on the mound while the Kat defense made outstanding plays all around him. Miller made back-to-back outstanding plays in the fourth inning to keep the Cowboys off the base paths.
“It’s a great start to the tournament and it was the best defense I’ve seen in a long time throughout the field and Kevin Miller and Carter Burgess were outstanding,” said Bearkat coach David Pierce. “Colt Atwood and the whole team played great defense today. Tyler Eppler gave us seven great innings and it was a great team win today.”
After a quick groundout to lead off the fifth, right fielder Lucas Quary singled up the middle and shortstop Connor Lloyd followed with a double down the left field line to tie the game, 1-1.
The Bearkats retook the lead in the next half inning after Burgess hit a one-out double to left field. Right fielder Ryan O’Hearn singled to score Burgess for the first run of the inning.
SHSU caught a break when second baseman Ryan Farney hit a soft chopper back to pitcher Blake Ware. The McNeese righty appeared to turn a double play but the second baseman never touched the base on the turn.
McNeese State added a run in the seventh inning. Left fielder Jackson Gooch led off with a single and moved to second on a balk. Lloyd ripped a liner that hit off of Eppler but Burgess was able to field and throw him out at first.
Second baseman Hans Ask walked with two outs and stole second base. Catcher Anthony Azar made an attempt to throw out Ask but the ball got away and allowed Gooch to score. The error was the first of the season on Azar.
The Cowboys cut it to a one-run game in the eighth inning. Jason Simms came out of the bull pen to relieve Eppler and got a quick out before walking the next two batters. Designated hitter Michael Sullivan ripped an RBI-single to right field to make the score 4-3. Simms was able to get out of the jam when the next batter hit into a double play.
Sam Houston answered quickly in the next frame to put the game away.
Plumlee led off with a double and the Cowboys intentionally walked Azar with one out. Miller came through with the three-run blast to the gap in right center.
The senior has made it a habit of hitting home runs in the Southland Conference Tournament. Of Miller’s four career long-balls, three have come in SLC Tournament play.
The Kats tacked on one more run in the inning on a bases loaded walk to make the score 8-4.
Simms was able to get another double play in the ninth inning and struck out pinch-hitter Billy Sommers to end the game. He picked up his ninth save of the season.
Sam Houston will play Thursday at 7 p.m. against Southeastern Louisiana, who beat Lamar 5-3 Wednesday night.