GREENVILLE, S.C. (WIAT) — After sweeping Mercer in the final weekend of the regular season, the Samford baseball team is the No. 1 seed in the Southern Conference Tournament.
Though the 32-22 Bulldogs were originally supposed to play their first game of the tournament Friday morning, they will now hit Fluor Field at 3 p.m. Thursday against fourth-seeded East Tennessee State. The Southern Conference announced multiple schedule changes Wednesday night because of inclement weather forecasted for Greenville, South Carolina, over the weekend.
But Samford, which finished conference play with a 15-6 record, has been no stranger to unanticipated changes throughout the campaign. Samford head coach Tony David said the Bulldogs saw several of their arms go down either before opening day or during the season’s first month. They’ve also sustained a couple of season-ending injuries to outfielders.
“So, we had to have some guys, some pitchers that maybe we weren’t expecting to have key roles before the year started,” David said. “If we were going to have success, they were going to have to slide into those key roles and be really good and they were.”
He said pitcher Ben Petschke slid into the closer role after Carson Hobbs and Alex Goff suffered injuries. Now, Petschke leads the conference with 13 saves. David said Turner Thompson and Jake Holifield have stepped up in relief pitching. Brody Westbrooks, who David said was supposed to be an important mid-relief pitcher, became the Saturday starter every week and performed well there.
Jacob Cravey, a junior right-handed pitcher, was dominant during the regular season as Samford’s Friday ace. Over 14 starts, he compiled three complete games, a 3.39 ERA and a 9-2 record. His strong outings led to him being announced Tuesday as the SoCon Pitcher of the Year.
Cravey wasn’t the only Bulldog who earned a conference postseason accolade. David was named coach of the year, while catcher/first baseman Lucas Steele won coaches freshman of the year. The former Hoover High School star notched 15 home runs and 47 RBI, along with SoCon-best nine doubles during league play.
Meanwhile, the media freshman of the year honor was given to infielder Jayden Davis. The Cookeville, Tennessee, product is riding a conference record 37-game hitting streak and recorded a .372 batting average throughout the season.
John Anderson, a junior infielder, was selected to the media first team and coaches second team. The Georgia Tech transfer led the conference with 21 home runs. Petschke was put on the coaches second team.
“This whole season I’ve been really confident in our guys through and through,” Cravey said. “We’ve gone out there and play some really good and played them well. I feel like we have a really special thing going here, and I think we can go really far.”
The Bulldogs automatically qualified for the NCAA Tournament three times by winning the conference tournament championship in 2012, 2018 and 2021. Though David is in his second season as head coach, he’s been with the program since 2005.
“We have had nothing but success in this tournament,” David said. “We don’t always win it, but we always win at it and play well. So our guys go into this event each year with a lot of confidence, and honestly, really everything about who I am about as a coach is about trying to breed confidence to them.”
David talked about Fluor Field, which plays host to the Greenville Drive, the High-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. In homage to Fenway Park, there is a “Green Monster” replica in left field. The left field foul pole is 310 feet away from home plate, while its “Pesky’s Pole” in right field is 302 feet. David said the ballpark does play well to right-handed power, which the Bulldogs are built around, while noting a left-handed swinger like Stephen Klein could still do damage there.
The easiest path for Samford to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid is to win its first three games in a row. If the Bulldogs drop either of their first two games, they’ll have to escape the loser’s bracket to have a shot at winning the conference tournament. In the event the Bulldogs make it to the championship contest unscathed but fall in it, they’ll play an extra game to determine the conference tournament champion.
“I think it’s going to be more rowdy going there this year because everybody’s gonna want to beat us because we’re the top dog,” Klein said. “We’re going to be the No. 1 seed going in there and as of now what we did to Mercer, sweeping them, that makes people want to beat us even more. So, I feel like we’re in a good spot.”