LYNCHBURG, Va. - Bolstered by another phenomenal pitching performance, the High Point University baseball team advanced to the Big South Baseball Championship Game with a 4-1 win over No. 5 seed Gardner-Webb on Friday afternoon at Liberty Baseball Stadium. This will be the first appearance in the conference championship game for the Panthers in program history.
"It was a really, really good baseball game," head coach Craig Cozart said. "It was similar to the baseball we've been playing for the last month. The thing I look at the most right now is the mentality of the team and the atmosphere in the dugout. It's free and easy. When Harrison went out and struck out the side in the first inning, I think everybody realized it was going to happen today."
The Panthers (34-21), who set a new season-high with their sixth straight win, also established a new Div. I program record with the 34th win of the campaign.
Redshirt-sophomore Harrison Smith set the tone for the game by striking out the side in the first inning in emphatic fashion and punching out the first four hitters he faced overall. Smith (2-4) worked out of a two-on, none-out jam in the third inning thanks to a pickoff play at second base that was overturned after a successful replay challenge from Cozart.
The Runnin' Bulldogs (31-27) were kept off balance all day by Smith, who registered eight strikeouts in his longest career outing. He worked around a pair of runners in the fifth thanks to a diving play at shortstop from junior Conner Dunbar and two more runners in the sixth on a 6-4-3 double play initiated by Dunbar. Smith scattered four hits and walked only two in the six scoreless frames.
High Point got its offense rolling in the bottom of the third when senior Austen Zente, the Big South Player of the Year, drove in redshirt-junior Daniel Millwee with an RBI single after the latter had doubled leading off the frame.
In the fourth, freshman Tanner Wells blasted a hanging breaking ball out of the park to left-center for his fourth round-tripper of the year. HPU put the game away with two more runs in the fifth inning via a safety squeeze bunt from freshman Travis Holt and an RBI single from senior Hunter Lee to make it 4-0. Lee was the only Panther with a multi-hit day, going 2-for-4 with an RBI. All four RBI's came from High Point's top four hitters.
After Smith got HPU through six, junior Cooper Jeffers recorded the final nine outs of the contest for his second save of the year. Jeffers yielded a solo homer in the top of the eighth, but otherwise faced the minimum with four strikeouts.