It was not the typical way games between the Mercer Bears and ETSU Buccaneers, the top offensive teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference have been played this season.
In every meeting between the two teams runs have been scored in double figures. The Bears lost 13-10 in the first of a three-game regular season series and then beat the Bucs 11-6 and 11-5. In the second day of the Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship at Ken Dugan Field at Stephen L. Marsh Stadium on the campus of Lipscomb University the Bears prevailed 10-7 with both teams getting 17 hits.
That hitting performance was on the mind of Mercer sophomore left-hander Brandon Love as he took the mound against ETSU Saturday morning. In the end Love and freshman right-handed reliever David Teasley combined to hold ETSU to six hits and one run in a 3-1 win.
“The strategy going in was to keep the ball down,” Love said. “They have a lot of guys who can hit the ball out of the park."
“Both teams can swing the bat. During the regular season our games with them were pound downs. And Thursday night it was another pound down. It came down this time to who made the least number of errors on the hill.”
Mercer, the only unbeaten team in the A-Sun Tournament, plays Jacksonville tonight at 6. A win by Mercer would clinch the championship. If Jacksonville wins the two teams face each other one more time Sunday at noon.
It is the first time Mercer had advanced to the championship game in the A-Sun Tournament in 16 years. The last time Mercer has won an A-Sun Championship was 2001 in men’s soccer.
Love, who started the season strong but faded in the middle of the season, got the call in order to use his left arm against a power lineup that includes Paul Hoilman and Bo Reeder, both hitters of 20 home runs this season.
“Brandon was our No. 1 pitcher for the first six weeks of the season and then he hit a little rocky spell in the middle of the road,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “We had some options to put in the Friday night role, but he was great today against a great club.”
Love had not pitched since he went 2.2 innings against Belmont May 21. He made 11 starts this season and 16 appearances overall. Despite his midseason problems he led the team in wins with seven and in strikeouts with 59.
“It has been a roller coaster,” Love said. “I started out really hot. Midway through the season I hit a bump. I couldn’t get anybody out."
“I think my fastball got a little flat. The past few weeks I have worked really hard on my arm and trying to get more movement on the ball.”
In 6.2 innings Love gave up five hits and one unearned run. He struck out three and walked three. Teasley closed out the game by allowing only one hit, a double in the eighth, in 2.1 innings to earn the save, his fifth of the season.
“In the bullpen I felt the best I had felt in a couple of weeks,” Love said. “Today I had command of all four of my pitches and I wanted to mix it up. That has only happened a couple of times. My changeup was in and out, but I had a good idea about it. I like to throw cutters against lefties and that is what many people saw from me."
“I really didn’t want to walk too many people. I wanted to force them to beat us. All of their batters are powerful. I knew I couldn’t make a mistake up in the zone or the ball was going to get out of here.”
This was only the fourth time this season that ETSU has been held to less than two runs in a game this season.
Love was quick to praise Teasley for an outstanding performance as well.
“I give all the credit for David coming in and helping me out in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.” Love said. “He got the job done. That is what he has done all year.”
Mercer was held to six hits as well, including a solo home run by third baseman Jacob Tanis in the eighth. Tanis leads the nation in RBI.
Mercer scored two runs in the second and ETSU came back with one run in the fifth. In eight of the nine games in the tournament the team that has scored first has won.
“We were just trying to piece some runs together,” Gibson said. “We kept scratching and tacking them on. We had two more runs than they had.
“We made our hits count with Jake stepping up and getting one out of the park late for us. I give their guy (Bo Burton) credit. He was really great today and kept us off balance.”
Gibson, unlike most of the other teams in the tournament, isn’t scratching his head trying to figure out who is left to pitch. He has a deep staff with a couple of choices for the Jacksonville game.
“I think our staff is deep,” Gibson said. “That is one of the strengths of our club. We haven’t had to rely on just one or two guys.
“Brandon was fresh. His arm was good. His velocity was good. He gave us a great start.”