BOONE, N.C. — It was no shoo-in, but Appalachian State’s baseball team came away with an impressive Sun Belt Conference win.
Joel McDaniel’s tiebreaking home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning lifted App State to a 7-6 home victory against division-leading Little Rock on Saturday at Jim and Bettie Smith Stadium.
“I felt good all day today, so I was glad I could come through for the boys right there,” he said.
A strong start from hard-luck pitcher Andrew Vaccacio and two RBI doubles from Drew Beck helped the Mountaineers establish a 6-2 lead through five innings. The Trojans tied the game with a three-run top of the eighth, scoring the last two runs on a two-out error with the bases loaded, but their chance to take the lead ended when McDaniel moved left from his spot at shortstop to field a bouncing ball behind second base and make a hurried flip to Bailey Welch for a forceout.
Two pitches into App State’s half of the eighth, McDaniel drilled a fastball over the left-field fence for a no-doubt homer off Justin Garcia, who entered the game with nine saves and a whopping 65 strikeouts in 44.0 innings.
Pitching in injured teammate Drake Zupcic’s shoes after he ripped a shoelace while covering home plate in the previous inning, closer Luke Watts earned the win by throwing a scoreless ninth. A runner reached first base before the game ended on a deep line drive to defensive substitute Bobby Hampton, who has been contributing as a left fielder even though his primary role is as a relief pitcher.
“Joel McDaniel comes up and makes a really big swing, and then you hand the ball right back to Watty, who you’ve got confidence in to go back out and finish it,” fill-in head coach and full-time assistant Britt Johnson said as he rocked his three-month-old twin boys, Cade Royster and Dax Ficklen, in his arms. “He walks out and makes some big pitches, and it was a really nice play by Bobby Hampton — that’s not an easy play with a pitcher out in left field with some of the injuries we’ve had. Bobby goes out there in no-doubles (defense) and makes a big catch.
“I’m just really proud of the resiliency of our guys today.”
Vaccacio gave up six hits and just one earned run while amassing six strikeouts in six innings, marking the fifth time in nine healthy starts this season that the left-handed starter with one win has allowed two earned runs or less in at least six innings of work.
Offensively, McDaniel’s 3-for-4 day also included a double, and Beck finished with three RBIs thanks to a 2-for-3 performance in which he scored twice. CJ Brown also went 2-for-3 with one RBI, and Beau Myers had a sacrifice fly to produce App State’s first run.
After McDaniel scored on Myers’ third-inning flyball to tie the game, Beck drove in Riley Smith from first with a fourth-inning double and scored on Brown’s double in the next at-bat. Little Rock cut App State’s lead to 3-2 before Alex Leshock and Smith scored with two away on a looping double down the left-field line by Beck, who alertly scored from second when a wide throw pulled the first baseman off the bag on Brown’s chopper to the right side.
Taking a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning following a scoreless seventh from relief pitcher Kaleb Bowman, App State (12-30, 4-16) still had a three-run advantage with two out and one runner on. The Trojans (22-18, 11-8) followed an RBI single with a single that put two runners on, prompting a move to Watts, and he damaged his left shoe midway through issuing a walk that loaded the bases.
A weakly hit, end-of-the bat chopper that traveled about 70 feet down the first-base line forced Watts to make a high-velocity, close-range throw that couldn’t be secured as Little Rock hitter Chase Coker approached first, and two runs scored on the play.
Despite the deflating turn of events, McDaniel made a stellar play in the field and responded with a quick-strike answer for Appalachian.
The three-game series concludes Sunday at 11 a.m., and the first 100 kids in attendance will receive a free App State mini-helmet.
App State Director of Track & Field and Cross Country John Weaver will throw out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday morning. Weaver plans to retire after the 2017-18 season to cap a 47-year coaching career in which he’s already won 43 conference coach of the year awards.
Single-game tickets can be purchased by clicking HERE. Weekend games are $10 for adults and $5 for youth.