Highlanders win second Big South baseball championship

Photo courtesy of RU Athletics
Radford University has won another Big South Conference tournament championship and will await its assignment in the Nashville region in the College Baseball World Series opening round.

For the second time in the last three years, Radford reclaimed its place at the baseball mountain top of the Big South as the Highlanders closed out the tournament with four straight wins and a dominating 9-2 championship win over Presbyterian, punching their ticket to next week’s NCAA Regional round.

The Highlanders ran the tables, outscoring opponents 29-8 in the tournament and finishing with an 40-22 advantage in the hit column. Radford’s pitching staff combined to strikeout 40 batters in 36 innings.

Radford starter Kyle Zurak was named the tournament’s most valuable player as tossing his first complete game in only his third collegiate start as the senior yielded only six hits and one walk over the contest. Zurak matched a career best nine strikeouts, set against the same Presbyterian team on April 2. The right-hander punched out 14 batters in 12.2 innings, giving up only seven hits and two earned runs.

The two foes locked into a pitchers’ duel in the first three innings, managing only one hit a piece. Radford struck first for the fourth time in the tournament as Danny Hrbek led off the fourth inning with a single to right field, later scoring on a Spencer Horwitz double down the right field line.

Presbyterian answered back in the bottom half of the inning as Cletis Avery led off the frame with a ground-rule double to left field, moving to third on a ground out. Avery scored easily on a ground ball to first as Nick Wise reached safely on the bobbled ball by Horwitz.

Stringing together several large innings in the tournament, the championship game was no different as Radford plated six runs on five hits and two Blue Hose miscues in the fifth inning.

Luke Wise led off the inning with a four-pitch walk, but was thrown out at third on a strong throw from Nick Giumbarda in right field off a Kyle Butler single. Matt Roth singled and Hrbek reached on a fielders’ choice to load the bases. Jonathan Gonzalez plated the first run of the inning on a RBI single up the middle to score Butler.

Horwitz continued the merry-go-round, reaching on a RBI fielders’ choice as his ground ball to shortstop forced no play as a sprinting Hrbek to third base forced a hurried attempt.

Blowing the game wide open with one swing of the bat for the second consecutive day, Anthony Miano lined a single up the middle to plate two runs as the hometown kid pushed the Highlander lead to 5-1. Miano had a two-run home run in the second inning of Radford’s Saturday semifinal win over UNC Asheville.

Designated hitter Clayton Baine followed with Radford’s second consecutive two-RBI base hit as he singled into the left-center field gap. The six-run inning saw 10 Highlanders come to the plate.

Zurak retired five of the six batters he faced after the big inning, before allowing a double to Tyler Weyenberg in the bottom of the seventh.

The righty received an insurance run in the top of the seventh as Horwitz led off the frame with a towering home run to right field, driving in his third RBI on the day and fifth in the tournament.

Striking out two batters in the eighth inning for the third time in the win, Zurak needed only three outs to secure his second tournament championship. The Highlanders gave Zurak another insurance run in the ninth as Baine reached on his second hit by pitch of the game, quickly swiping second base and moving to third on a Richard De la Cruz single to right.

Peppering opponents with an array of bunts in the four games, Wise put down a bunt single down the first base as his speed forced a no throw and Baine scored easily on the squeeze bunt.

The Blue Hose made Zurak work in the final frame, forcing him to throw 15 pitches, before forcing a 3-1 ground out to secure the 9-2 championship win as the Highlanders created a dogpile in front of first base

Radford becomes the third No. 5 seed in Big South Tournament history to win the championship. The last No. 5 seed to win the tournament was Liberty in 2013. The win improves Radford to 9-8 as the No. 5 seed and 2-0 against Presbyterian in the tournament.

The Highlanders are now 10-2 in its last three conference tournaments. Radford improves to 24-36 all-time in the conference tournament and 17-16 under head coach Joe Raccuia. The Highlanders are now 19-11 when scoring first and 11-5 when scoring six-plus runs.

Joining Zurak on the all-tournament team were Danny Hrbek, Spencer Horwitz and Kyle Butler. Horwitz finished the day with a 2 for 5 performance with three RBIs and two runs scored. The freshman went 7 for 16 with five runs scored and five RBIs. Matt Roth and Butler joined Horwitz with two hits each in the game.

Three Highlanders finished with multi-RBI games as Clayton Baine and Anthony Miano finished with two-RBI hits apiece. Hrbek and Butler finished the tournament with five hits each as Butler tallied four RBIs.

Six different Highlanders finished the tournament five-plus hits and six finished with three-plus RBIs.

Radford led the tournament with a 1.50 ERA and 40 strikeouts. In 36 innings pitched, Radford’s pitching staff surrendered only seven extra-base hits. The four games saw Radford use only six pitchers, including only three relievers in the four games.

Radford went 10 for 28 with runners on base and 6 for 19 with runners in scoring position in the win. The Highlanders advanced 15 of its 28 base runners.

“I’m speechless. A little shocked, but then again not shocked. They deserved to win the tournament, by no means were we ever outplayed. We almost outplayed the opponent in every inning. Kyle Zurak gave us a performance to remember in this championship game. This is the second time in three years that we won the tournament. We even won a couple of games in the tournament last year. This is something big for our program in regards to not thinking that 2015 was a fluke. This is now becoming Radford baseball,” said Radford head coach Joe Raccuia.

— Courtesy of RU Athletics