Lander takes over PBC lead sweeping home-standing Bobcats

Apr. 16—Georgia College & State University baseball began the weekend on top of the Peach Belt Conference. But when it was over, the Bobcats had to turn over clubhouse leadership to Lander University.

Visiting John Kurtz Field in Milledgeville from Greenwood, South Carolina, the Lander Bearcats swept the three-game Peach Belt Conference series hosted by Georgia College. All games were decided by two runs of fewer, and the Bobcats of coach Nolan Belcher never led by more than one run at any point over the 27 innings of play.

In fact, Belcher received quality starts on the pitching mound in all three games. Two of the three losses were tagged to the relief corps. Lander, which didn't come close to matching the output of one game on April 2 (22 runs in a 22-20 win), scored winning runs via the sacrifice fly and the bases-loaded walk.

The final scores were a 3-1 Bearcat win in a single game Friday where Lander scored all three in the top of the eighth inning; a 5-3 win to start a Saturday doubleheader as Lander broke a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth; and a 4-3 win to complete the sweep, the winning run plated again in the top of the ninth when it was 3-3.

Lander was in a second-place tie with North Georgia in the Peach Belt standings before the series, but now it is Georgia College sharing the same record as North Georgia in conference play (14-7). The Bearcats stand two games ahead of the pack at 16-5, and overall Lander extended a winning streak to 10 in a row. Columbus State is the next Bobcat opponent in conference play beginning April 19 in Columbus, and Columbus State is in a tie for fifth place in the PBC with Georgia Southwestern State each at 13-8.

The Bobcat-Bearcat series was all about pitching duels beginning with Friday, where sophomore John Luke Glanton faced Lander graduate student Bennett Nance. The left-handed Nance struck out six batters in seven innings while Glanton pitched into the eighth inning striking out seven, allowing only four hits and walking two.

From the defensive side, Glanton got a running and diving catch in left field from Evan Cowan to strand a runner on third base in the top of the second. Matthew Mebane at third base made a diving field and throw to prevent a third-inning rally, and Braeden Smith, freshman at first base, had a run-saving play in a fifth inning that had two Bobcat errors.

Georgia College's only run Friday was unearned when Cowen's pop-up to start the home third was dropped in the Lander infield. Cowen stole second base and scored on catcher Rand Bestermann's single.

Lander left five runners on base without scoring in seven innings, but the eighth turned out to be its time to shine. Ross McCurley's first-pitch single got it started, and he worked his way to third base with one out. Ethan Wilder, one of five in the PBC batting over .400, brought in the tying run with a long fly ball.

The Bobcats couldn't get the final out before Lander put five straight runners on base off both Glanton and reliever John Raines. Chandler Moller singed in the go-ahead run and Gary Garrett walked with the bases loaded to make it 3-1.

Georgia College made it interesting in the home ninth loading the bases with one out, but Tyler Overholt got designated hitter Brent Burford to hit into a double play.

Weekend doubleheader

The duel of Game 2 Saturday was between junior Bradley Wilson of Georgia College and freshman Ethan Califf of Lander. The scoring came early with Lander's Chris Manriquez delivering an RBI hit in the top of the first. Moller looked to get the third Bearcat hit, but Bobcat shortstop Gabriel Wuerth stopped the baseball from going up the middle. He flipped it to second baseman Mason Poole for one out, then Poole saw the other opposing runner get too far from third base. Mebane completed the rare 6-4-5 double play.

Califf had a shaky first inning as Wuerth, Brandon Bellflower and Smith got on base — two via walks — with one out. With Cowan at the plate, Califf was charged with a tying balk, then Cowen put the home team up 2-1 on a sacrifice fly.

The next three innings flew by with three hits combined, but in the fifth Lander reclaimed the lead by one, 3-2, on three straight hits. The hitting prowess of Bearcat Connor Droze prompted Belcher to employ a shift (still legal in college) on the left-handed stick. Droze batted with two in scoring position and beat that shift with a two-run single to the left side of second base.

Droze had another creative way to counter the shift later on Saturday.

Califf settled down to record outs on 12 straight Bobcat batters, but with one out in the home seventh Georgia College ended his day with two straight hits. One was a double to deep right from Wuerth, his second of the game. The new Bearcat pitcher allowed the tying run to score on a wild pitch.

Wilson worked seven full innings and got more great defense from Smith at first base and Cowen in left field. Lex Kenny pitched the eighth and got a double play to help keep the game tied 3-3.

But in the top of the ninth, Wilder singled with one out and Droze put down a solid bunt to reach base. Two walks later and Lander was ahead by one, then a simple ground-out put an extra run on the lead for 5-3.

The Bobcats had just one more hit after tying the game, that from Bellflower with two out and no one on base in the home ninth.

Lander's Anson Merrick went the distance to win Game 3 Saturday and remain undefeated in 2024 at 4-0. Jacob Ryan worked for the Bobcats as one of seven PBC pitchers with six wins on the season.

Ryan's team got him the early lead when Bellflower doubled to help loaded the bases. Cowen singled in the run, but Merrick got out of more trouble with a double play.

Ryan only gave up one hit through three innings and got his own double play to end the top of the third.

A shift didn't matter to Droze, though, in the fourth as he ended a nine-pitch at-bat with a tying home run. He leads the PBC in that department with 18.

Single-run innings were the norm, the Bobcats getting back in front 2-1 in the home fifth from a balk called after a long discussion among umpires. In the top of the sixth, Lander tried a double steal with two outs and got the tying run home before the third out was made.

Bellflower doubled on the first pitch of the home sixth and scored on Mitch Cowen's two-out single.

That 3-2 lead didn't last through the top of the seventh, and it was a two-out safety from McCurley leveling things at 3-all. Ryan pitched eight complete frames with four strikeouts and 129 pitches, but the Bobcat offense had just one hit in the last three innings.

Off Owen Thomas in the top of the ninth, Lander got what it needed with runners at the corner bases and one out. Logan Kobis, a substitute at catcher, delivered the winning sacrifice fly.