CHAMPIONS! Third-ranked LaGrange used another standout pitching performance to win the USA South Tournament championship Saturday at Cleaveland Field in Williamson Stadium. The Panthers (35-4) blanked Piedmont 6-0 to secure the conference's automatic qualifier to next month's NCAA Division III tournament. They are the second team in the tournament's history to win the championship with a shutout.
Senior Josh Smith (3-1) went 8-1/3 innings to earn the tournament's Most Valuable Player award. Smith scattered six hits, walked one and struck out five. He twice stranded runners at third and picked off another runner.
LaGrange's pitching staff allowed three runs, two earned, in four tournament games, while throwing two shutouts. Smith was facing a Piedmont team that had scored 48 runs in four games after losing 5-2 to LC in the tournament's first game.
The Panthers staked Smith to a 2-0 lead after the first inning. Tavin Thompson reached second on an error to lead off the inning. Thompson came around to score the first run of the game on Casey Bell's base hit. Bell ended up at second on the play and later came home on Blane Swift's RBI single for a 2-0 lead.
LaGrange upped its lead to 4-0 in the third inning. The Panthers loaded the bases with no outs. Blake Butcher reached on a fielder's choice as James Poropatic scored. Swift's sacrifice bunt drove in Thompson with the second run of the inning.
The Panthers closed out the scoring with a run in the fifth and another in the eighth. Butcher brought home Poropatic with a two-out single to center. In the eighth, Poropatic's RBI single drove in Jackson Patrick to make it 6-0.
Jonathan Fleckenstein relieved Smith with one out in the ninth. He got the final two outs, the last on a strikeout of Caleb Norton, to close out the victory.
The Panthers had 13 hits in the game. Poropatic was 3-for-3, while Bell, Swift, and Patrick all had two hits.
The Panthers are the first team to win the conference's regular season and tournament titles since Christopher Newport in 2013. LC will be making its second NCAA appearance and its first since 2010.