HARDEEVILLE -- The NAIA rules state that if rain had kept USC Beaufort and St. Thomas from playing Monday's Game 9 of their Baseball Championship Opening Round tournament, the winner of Game 8 would have been named the champion.
The Bobcats are probably wishing the skies would have just opened up, because the storm the Sand Sharks unleashed on them in the bottom of the fourth inning blew them away.
USCB broke open a scoreless game with eight runs in the fourth on its way to an 11-2 win over St. Thomas to win the NAIA Baseball Opening Round championship at the Richard Gray Sports Complex.
The Sand Sharks (40-17) advance for the first time to the Avista-NAIA World Series held May 25-June 1 in Lewiston, Idaho.
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"I couldn't be more excited," Sand Sharks head coach Bryan Lewallyn said. "I can't even begin to express the emotions. ... I don't know how I'm feeling right now."
The team dogpiled on the infield grass after senior second baseman Gabe Torres caught the throw from third baseman David O'Neil to force Joel Capote at second for the final out.
"This is fantastic," senior first baseman Brandon Collins said. "After we lost the first game, a bunch of us got together and said, 'We're not going to play our last games together like this.' "
On three days rest, USCB senior left-hander Michael Heesch went six innings, allowing five hits and two unearned runs before giving way to Adam Miller, who pitched three scoreless innings for his first save of the season.
While Heesch (9-2) said he "officially" found out Sunday he'd be pitching Monday's championship, he said in his mind, he'd known it since Thursday's extra-innings loss to St. Thomas.
"It's not really bouncing back," Heesch said of the Sand Sharks' run through the losers' bracket to the championship. "It's not wanting to fail, never giving up and not being willing to lose."
"There was no question (he'd pitch today)," Lewallyn said of Heesch. "Today was his bullpen day anyway and with the way he's throwing the ball and knowing we had Adam (Miller) behind him. ... He was able to get ahead. He was a very efficient pitcher today."
For the first 4 1/2 innings, the game was a pitchers' duel between Heesch and St. Thomas' ace, junior right-hander Danny Sanchez, also pitching on just three days rest.
But that was the calm before the storm.
The bottom of the fourth started harmlessly enough when center fielder R.J. Neal struck out swinging. And then it got ugly in a hurry.
Senior catcher Dylan Nasiatka singled and gave way to courtesy runner Keenan Ivey. Ivey wasn't on base long before left fielder Ty Main tripled into the right field corner to give the Sand Sharks a 1-0 lead.
Next up, Conald Mansfield just missed a two-run homer, doubling off the top of the wall in dead center field to score Main and make it 2-0. Torres singled to score Mansfield and it was 3-0, Sand Sharks.
Collins doubled to left for USCB's fifth straight hit, all by seniors, to put runners at second and third, still with only one out and three runs in. A walk to Dom Hayes loaded the bases for Battery Creek product Weldon Smith.
Smith hit a hard grounder that stayed down and got under the glove of All-Sun Conference third baseman Victor Madrazo, allowing two runs to score, making it 5-0. O'Neil singled to right to score Hayes and put runners on first and second with the score 6-0.
Neal then struck out swinging for the second time in the inning before Nasiatka smashed a double to the right-field wall to score Smith and O'Neil to make it 8-0. Main popped out to third to end the inning.
"It was awesome," Mansfield said. "We just got hit after hit after hit."
St. Thomas would score two unearned runs in the top of the sixth off Heesch, but that's as close as it got.
In the bottom of the seventh, Collins put the final nail in the Bobcats' coffin.
With two outs and runners on first and second, Ricky Claudio's 0-2 pitch to Collins was in the vicinity of his head. After dusting himself off, he worked the count full before fouling off three straight payoff pitches. The fourth paid off as Collins crushed it over the right field wall for a three-run home run to make it 11-2 and put the game away.
Next up for the Sand Sharks?
Lewallyn said the team would have fun celebrating and then get back to work this week before a 20-hour flight to Idaho.
"I cant wait," Collins said. "I don't care how long it is. I'm going to enjoy every minute. This is my senior year. This is it for me."