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Freeman homers, but Bucs fall to Mercer

Trey Williams • May 17, 2014 at 9:21 PM

Clinton Freeman punctuated his prolific career at Thomas Stadium with an exclamation mark, but Mercer didn't get swept up in the emotion of East Tennessee State's Senior Day.

Freeman hit his Atlantic Sun Conference-leading 13th home run of the season to give ETSU a lead in the fourth inning, but Mercer responded with a pair of two-run home runs and piled up 17 hits while beating the Bucs 8-1 to avoid a three-game sweep on Saturday.

ETSU (13-13, 26-28) will enter the A-Sun tournament as the No. 6 seed. The Bucs will play Kennesaw State (17-9, 33-21) at 10 a.m. on Wednesday at Florida Gulf Coast.

Mercer (18-9, 38-15) secured the second seed for the A-Sun tournament, and will open against seventh-seeded Stetson on Wednesday.

ETSU coach Tony Skole said winning a series against a quality Mercer team could hopefully build some momentum for the Bucs.

Freeman will certainly enter on an uptick despite Saturday's loss. He finished 2-for-4 to raise his average to .351.

Freeman went 8-for-11 with two home runs, a double, two RBIs and six runs while helping the Bucs take two of three from Mercer, which might get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if it doesn't win the A-Sun tournament.

About the only thing Freeman did wrong was take a huge swing at a high two-strike fastball from reliever Dimitri Kourtis for the second out in the ninth -- "I got a little greedy," he said with smile -- but trying to deliver one last blast with two outs remaining in an 8-1 game was understandable.

"You know, we were just glad to get him out one time," Mercer coach Craig Gibson said. "Heck man, we couldn't get the guy out. But I'm happy for him. He seems like a great kid and I hope he gets the chance to play professional baseball. He's had a great career here."

Freeman also made a couple of difficult plays at first base. He back-handed a short-hop to retire Michael Massi unassisted to begin the game, and delighted the crowd when he dove near the Bucs' dugout after getting a good jump to catch Charlie Madden's pop-up for the third out in the fourth.

"I've had a good crowd behind me the entire year," said Freeman, a David Crockett graduate. "The Lord's blessed me with a really good family and really good friends, too. That's the reason why I wanted to come here.

"We didn't lose one series at home in conference. I want to say my family and friends and the rest of the crowd and community this year have really helped us out at home, because we've got a young team. ... We beat Tennessee here when they were ranked. We beat Mercer here when they were ranked."

Mercer looked like a team that's beaten Florida and Georgia Tech (twice) on Saturday.

Derrick Workman's two-run home run gave the Bears a 4-1 lead with one out in the sixth. Cleanup batter Nick Backlund lined his eighth home run of the season over the left-center field fence to make it 6-1 in the seventh. And right-hander Eric Nyquist (8-1) allowed one run on three hits and no walks in seven innings for the victory.

"Their pitcher was very good today," Skole said. "He didn't give us much wiggle room there and he made it very difficult on us."

ETSU senior right-hander Logan Rice gave the Bucs a quality start. The Unicoi County graduate allowed two runs on eight hits in five innings. He tallied a career-high six strikeouts and didn't walk a batter.

"I just wanted to go out with a bang, I guess," Rice said. "That was definitely one of my better performances ... this year. Everything was working for me. I was able to locate the fastball, curveball and changeup, and was able to get 'em to swing at some pitches out of the zone."

Rice appeared to tire in the fifth after opening the frame with back-to-back strikeouts.

Four of the next five batters singled and the Bears scored two runs thanks to consecutive two-out singles.

Rice was a blink from five shutout innings, but Sasha LaGarde lined a single that bounced so high off the mound that second baseman Trey York could only stand on the bag and hope the ball descended quickly enough for him to force out Michael Massi.

But Massi slid in at second just before the ball landed in York's glove, allowing Devin Bonin to tie the score at 1 on LaGarde's two-out single. Chesny Young followed with an RBI single to right field for a 2-1 lead before Rice concluded his outing with Backlund's line-out to left.

"He pitched really well," Freeman said. "I can't ask for anything more out of him... I thought he pitched his butt off."

Skole seemed to have expected as much from Rice.

"Logan's just a tough, hard-nosed kid that throws strikes," Skole said. "You know, he got himself in a little bit of trouble early, but he fought his way out of it. They had some baserunners on, but he made some big pitches when he had to. And that's what we've sort of grown accustomed to from Logan -- his ability just to go out there and compete with a warrior's heart."

ETSU freshman Chris Cook was retired twice on good defensive plays. Moorhouse made a full-speed leap in to the fence in left while catching Cook's line-drive to end the second, and Young charged hard from third for a chopper and made a quick, strong throw to get Cook by a half-step for the second out in the fifth.

Cook was also impressive in the field when he charged and made an athletic catch after Devin Bonin popped up a bunt in the third inning.

But the Bucs could've used another fielder or two the way Mercer swung bats. Young, Moorhouse and Kyle Lewis each had three hits. LaGarde and Bonin had two apiece.

"We're fighting for an at-large; this was a huge game for us," Gibson said. "Our RPI's in the low 30s. So we needed today to get us going on a win. ...

"They play well at home, and I knew they would play well this weekend. And shoot, we just happened to swing the bats today."

Mercer finished 17-for-40. Four ETSU relievers -- in an all-senior curtain call, if you will -- allowed six runs on nine hits in a combined four innings.

The Bears' Kourtis struck out three and walked none while lowering his ERA to 1.29 with two scoreless innings of relief.

Winning two of three against Mercer seemed like even more of an accomplishment after the Bucs dropped the finale.

"They've got 38 wins for a reason," Skole said. "They're pretty darn good. I wasn't sure after coming back from last week after really getting punched in the mouth at (Florida) Gulf Coast -- wasn't sure how we were gonna respond this week. ...

"I'm really proud of our guys. It's a big series win."

And one final big series from Freeman.

"He played three seasons in this ballpark, and if you look at his numbers just at home, they are amazing," Skole said. "Before this week ... he's hitting well over .460-.470 just at home this season. ... He's had one of the best careers ever here and it's been fun to watch a local boy really come here and do well. He's gonna get his degree and hopefully he'll get a chance to continue to play as well, professionally."

Skole commended all of his seniors, which include Daniel Tucker, Will Chesney, Tyler Roach, Jared Burton, Derek Bushey, Brandon Wilson, Matt Sorrow and the injured Dylan Tritsch.

"One thing I'm most proud of is what they've done in the classroom," Skole said. "And off the field these guys have been just great young men and made a huge impact in our program. Obviously, they all played on our championship team last year.

"And they've been very fun to coach. Very proud of all of them."

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