BRISTOL, Tenn. – With its postseason fate hanging in the balance, the King University baseball team used a dominant offensive performance in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader and a complete-game effort from Cory Rhodes in the second to earn a three-game series sweep of Limestone College and clinch a bid to the Conference Carolinas Tournament.
With its three wins over Limestone, King (17-27-1, 8-10 Conference Carolinas) moves into a tie for fourth place with the Saints (20-23, 8-10 Conference Carolinas) in the league standings and holds the tiebreaker should the teams finish with the same record. King assured itself one of the six conference tournament bids as it is now four games clear of seventh-place Belmont Abbey with three games to play in King's conference slate.
The Tornado fell behind in the top of the first inning of the afternoon's opening contest, surrendering a run on a sacrifice bunt attempt. But the Tornado got to Limestone starter Jameson McGrane early, chasing him from the game after just 1/3 of an inning. A Tyler Raymond single scored Tyler Gaby from second base, then Stephen Mullins plated two more runs with a single up the middle. McGrane was lifted in favor of Kyle Cliff after the Mullins hit with Limestone trailing 3-1 just six batters into the King lineup. McGrane was ultimately charged with four runs as the Tornado sent 10 men to the plate and pounded out five hits in the inning.
The Tornado then scored another six runs in the second, this time with 11 batters ripping seven hits in the frame. The Tornado had runners on second and third with two outs after Tom Hooker scored the first run of the inning on a suicide squeeze by Garrett Cook. The Tornado then got consecutive two-out, run-scoring hits from Mullins, Justin Trent, Moises Soto, Cody Rogers, and Gaby that made the score 10-1.
Limestone got three runs back on a Avi Alzadeh home run to left field that came off of Alexander Gonzalez. The King starter went 7.0 innings to earn his fourth win of the season, allowing five runs, four of which were earned, on seven hits . He issued two free passes and struck out five. Ryan Nichols closed out the contest, allowing one hit in two innings of work.
A Raymond RBI single and a Hunter Smith three-run home run to left center provided the rest of the offense for the Tornado, who reached the 20-hit plateau for the first time since an 18-6 win over Young Harris College on May 4, 2012. Gaby, Raymond, Mullins, and Trent each totaled three hits in the win, which marked the 12th time this season King has scored at least 10 runs in a game.
In stark contrast to King's win in the first game, the afternoon's second contest was a pitcher's duel that saw neither team go to the bullpen. Limestone's Kaleb Earls threw 8.0 innings and gave up four runs, three earned, on seven hits and struck out five without a walk. But he was outperformed by King's Cory Rhodes, who threw a complete game and gave up three runs, one of which was unearned, on seven hits. He walked one batter and struck out six in his 141-pitch performance.
The Tornado appeared to be well on its way to a series sweep after a two-run second inning. Cook successfully executed his second suicide squeeze of the day to score Mullins with the bases loaded and J.D. Wallace came in to score moments later on a wild pitch. But Limestone's Alzadeh crushed another home run, this time a two-run shot down the left field line, to even the score in the fourth.
Cook singled through the left side on a full count to open up the fifth for King. He stole second with two outs in the inning and plated King's third run of the game on a Raymond RBI single into right center. The Tornado would pick up an important insurance run in the next frame as Mullins scored an unearned run on a fielding error by the Saints' shortstop.
Limestone pulled to within a run in the eighth on an RBI single from Alzadeh with two runners on. But Rhodes shut the Saints down in the ninth, striking out Chad Balderman on a 2-2 fastball to end the game with the tying run on second base.
King will return to action in Harrogate, Tenn. on Tuesday in a road game with Lincoln Memorial University on Tuesday. The two teams squared off in Bristol on February 19, playing to a 6-6 tie before the game was halted due to darkness. That game will be resumed at 4:00 p.m., with Lincoln Memorial coming to bat with no outs and none on base in the top of the 11th inning and King playing as the home team. They will then face off in Tuesday's regularly-scheduled contest after the resumed game is completed. King will then return home to face Tusculum College on Wednesday before closing out the regular season with a three-game conference series against Barton College on Friday and Saturday in Bristol.