SUGAR LAND, Texas — As the Central Arkansas baseball team dogpiled on the mound after winning the 15th and final game of the Southland Conference baseball tournament on Saturday, one of the most unlikely players was on the bottom of the pile.
True freshman pitcher Connor Gilmore, who had only four starts during the regular season, threw a complete-game two-hitter as UCA beat Southeastern Louisiana 4-0 to earn the Southland Conference’s automatic NCAA postseason spot.
“We had an ace in the hole,” UCA coach Allen Gum said after being drenched with the water cooler. “We knew it. I don’t think anyone else knew it, but we did. Connor came through and just pitched unbelievable tonight.”
Four hours after beating Lamar 7-2 and advancing to the championship game for the second straight year, SLU’s bats couldn’t carry it over as their season ended in front of 942 fans at Constellation Field.
“You have tip your hat to their guys — they did great,” SLU coach Jay Artigues said. “I just feel really bad for our guys.
“We got back to the championship again, and that’s what makes it hurt even more. We’ve got the experience, but we’ve got to break through and get over that hump.”
The biggest road block Saturday was Gilmore, who threw 126 pitches in a career-high nine innings. He only allowed two hits and four walks for the No. 7 seeded Bears, who will find out their postseason destination Monday.
No. 4 seed SLU (36-24), playing its fifth game in four days, left seven men on base, while SLU pitchers walked seven Central Arkansas batters.
“This isn’t the way you want it to end, but we had a great year and a good tournament. We just fell short in the end,” said Ladd Rhodes, who, along with Jameson Fisher, was named to the all-tournament team.
UCA (39-20) got the only runs it needed in the third inning with the aid of a three SLU walks and a hit by pitch. The Bears added a fourth run in the seventh inning.
Forrestt Allday had two hits to lead the Bears and was named the tournament MVP. Garrett Brown and Michael Marietta also made the all-tournament team for UCA, while Gilmore was one of two pitchers.
“I tried to stay within myself and go out there and throw strikes,” Gilmore said. “I wanted to go out and make an impact in my freshman year, and I think I did that.”
Gilmore (4-0) faced 30 batters on the night and finished with a big tackle from Marietta.
“I got taken down pretty hard by my catcher,” Gilmore said. “As much as it hurts, it’s a dream come true.”
Senior Kaleb Manuel started for the Lions after taking the ball in Wednesday night’s 5-3 win over Lamar. He was relieved in the third inning by closer Mason Klotz, who threw 101 pitches in a career-high six innings.
Southeastern’s only hits — both singles — came from Jesse Buratt and Alex Marse.
“It’s very disappointing, but this is our fifth straight season winning 35-plus games, and it is a credit to the kids we are bringing in,” Artigues said. “They are great kids, and they make our job easy.”
SLU 7, LAMAR 2: In the earlier game, Sean Kennel held the Cardinals to just three hits and two runs over seven innings, while the Lions broke a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning when Aaron Haag singled in Harry Slade.
Rhodes then walked with the bases loaded to score Josh Watkins and Ben Hernandez followed with a sacrifice fly to score Haag and put the Lions up 5-2.
The Lions scored two more in the seventh and Dylan Hills closed the game out, allowing two hits and no runs in the final two innings.
Hernandez and Buratt each had two hits and an RBI to lead the Lions, who out hit the Cardinals 11-5 in the team’s third matchup in four days.
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