Thursday, May 23, 2019

Richards' blast lifts Paladins to wild win

Jabari Richards' 31st career home run lifted Furman to a 9-7 win over Western
Carolina at the SoCon Tournament Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
In a wild elimination game between Furman and Western Carolina Thursday at the Southern Conference Tournament, the Paladins trailed by one when Jared Mihalik led off the eighth with a single. Attempts to move him into scoring position didn't go so well.

Jabari Richards fouled off a bunt attempt before taking an inside pitch that the Paladins argued hit him. After a video review, the umpires ruled it simply a ball. Richards showed bunt on the next pitch before pulling the bat back for ball two. Richards then showed why when one of the most prolific home run hitters in school history is at the plate, you're always in scoring position.

On the next pitch, Mihalik took off for second as Richards swung away. Rather than hit it where the defender left on the hit-and-run, Richards hit it where the defender never was. His shot zoomed out over the rightfield fence for a two-run home run that gave Furman the lead and the Paladins went on to a 9-7 victory.

"We got the bunt on, then there's all this controversy whether it hits him or not. I look over at (hitting coach Taylor) Harbin, who gives me the hit-and-run. I said, 'let's do it,' and sure enough, the kid puts a huge swing on it," Furman coach Brett Harker said. "You can't stop believing in yourself. You're always one pitch away, one at-bat away, one swing away from changing the game and helping us survive.
"It was a really cool moment for a senior to step up. If Jabari is playing the way Jabari plays, that's just another at-bat. But to pull himself up out of the way he'd been swinging ... when we needed him, he pulled it off."

The win advances fifth-seeded Furman (26-30) to another elimination game on Friday at 7 p.m. against sixth-seeded ETSU.

It was Richards' ninth homer this season and 31st of his career, which is tied for fourth-most in school history with Rock Hurst (1982-85) and Jim Morrill (1995-98). A day after Furman's 11-2 loss to Mercer in the opening round, Harker juggled his lineup and it paid off. After hitting just five home runs over the past 13 games, the Paladins slugged four on Thursday.

David Webel's first collegiate home run was a two-run shot atop the Green Monster that gave Furman a 2-0 lead in the third. An inning later, John Michael Boswell led off with a 12-pitch at-bat that included seven foul balls. That 12th pitch traveled 417 feet worth of fair territory, hitting the building beyond the Green Monster for his first home run since returning to the lineup following a 16-game absence due to injury.

A two-run double by Trent Alley in the fifth and an RBI-double by Banks Griffith in the sixth pushed Furman's lead to 6-0.

"We lived and died by the long ball today and had some big ones," Harker said. "Webel hits the first of his career. That's unbelievable. Bos hits one where the leftfielder doesn't even more."

With David Dunlavey in command on the pitching mound, the Paladins seemingly had everything under control. However in the bottom of the sixth, Dunlavey hit the leadoff man and Luke Robinson followed with an RBI-triple. Dunlavey got two outs sandwiched around a walk and Robinson still on third before each of the next two Catamounts reached on Furman errors. That cut the Paladins lead to 6-3, and chased Dunlavey from the game with a pitch count of 118.

Nik Verbeke came on and got a groundout to escape further damage. Verbeke quickly retired the first two batters in the bottom of the seventh before a four-pitch walk to Robinson ignited what became a stunning four-run inning that gave Western Carolina a 7-6 lead.

After Richards' blast put Furman ahead in the top of the eighth, Furman reliever Rob Hughes retired the first two Catamounts in the bottom half on six pitches. Once again, Robinson tried to start a two-out rally for WCU as he doubled. The Catamounts (21-32) loaded the bases before Webel hauled in a fairly deep drive to centerfield to end the inning.

Logan Taplett's sixth homer of the season provided a big insurance run in the top of the ninth. In the bottom half, Hughes once again retired the first two batters before a walk and a single brought 2019 SoCon Player of the Year Justice Bigbie to the plate. With Robinson looming on deck, Hughes got Bigbie to ground out to short to end the game. Bigbie, who hit .371 this regular season - including .381 in SoCon play, went 0-for-5 for the first time all year Thursday.

"That's the hardest that the third out has been to get I think in my coaching career," Harker said. "All those late innings, it was so elusive.
"At the end of the day, we're just doing anything we can to play tomorrow and we did just enough."

Despite all the fireworks that happened down the stretch Thursday, a pretty amazing play that took place in the bottom of the fifth could not be forgotten. As seemingly every inning went, there were two outs and nobody on before WCU threatened when Immanuel Wilder reached and took second on a fielding error.

Daylan Nanny followed with a sharp single up the middle that Furman shortstop Bret Huebner made a diving stop of. After the dive, Huebner rolled and made a throw towards home plate as he was falling on his back. The throw was a little up the first base line, but catcher Dax Roper caught it, ran towards the plate, and dove just in time to tag out Wilder trying to score to end the inning.

"It's one of the more incredible plays I've ever seen in person," Harker said. "I don't know if the average fan understands how much savvy it takes to throw that ball. That was pretty special."

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