JACKSONVILLE — Now, it's time for the fun.
After polishing off UAB 5-3 in a home non-conference game Tuesday night, Jacksonville State is heading to Clarksville, Tenn., on Wednesday for a three-game series at Austin Peay, and as it happens, the two teams are tied for the Ohio Valley Conference baseball lead. They're set to play Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and these are the last games of the OVC schedule.
They're the only two teams left in the hunt, so whichever one wins this series also wins the league regular-season crown.
"Winning tonight was big going into this weekend," JSU sophomore Cole Frederick said. "It's good for momentum. We knew that coming in. So, we just hope that it carries on."
Austin Peay has won the OVC 10 times but the last one came in 2012. JSU last won the OVC regular season in 2008. The NCAA bid, however, goes to the team that wins the OVC tournament, which will be May 22-25 in Marion, Ill.
"We are so excited," JSU pitcher Colin Casey said. "We wish we could go up there right now. It's the most fun time of the year. Hopefully, we can get two wins and come back here for a couple of days and go to Illinois with the one seed."
Tuesday served almost like an exhibition game. The Gamecocks played to win and played their regulars in the field, but Case planned to use left-hander Michael Gilliland to start, then bring in right-handers Casey and Cody Willingham to finish the game.
They worked the nine innings with only a little trouble and didn't force Case to use anyone else out of the bullpen, leaving the others rested for the Austin Peay series. Gilliland gave up three runs in three innings of work after not giving up anything in the first two.
Casey (1-1) pitched four innings and didn't allow a run. That's his longest outing of the season and most effective. He was rewarded with his first win of the season. Willingham finished with two scoreless innings for his first save of the season.
"The three guys that we wanted to pitch tonight, they did a really nice job," Case said. "Gilliland wasn't as good as I've seen him, but I thought that Casey might've been as good as I've ever seen him. He was really, really good. And, it was nice for Willingham in the final home game as a senior to be able to come in and get that save."
The Gamecocks got all the offense they needed in the first inning. They scored all five runs in that inning off UAB starter Austin Bohannon, with help from a two-run homer by Frederick and a solo shot by Alex Webb. After that, the UAB bullpen didn't allow another run, even though JSU finished with 11 hits, including at least one by seven different starters.
"I think the first inning was about as loud as we've had all year," Case said. "We were hitting balls right on the screws. Somebody jokingly said we had five runs before the national anthem was over. It felt like that. We just jumped on them. To their credit, that was it."
What to know
—Tre Kirklin was 2-for-4 with a run, which broke a small slump. In the previous four games, he had one hit in 18 at-bats. Frederick is now hitting .288 and has a 12-game hitting streak. His home run was his sixth of the season.
—Alex Strachan was 2-for-3, which improved his batting average to .250. That's the best it's been since the second week of the season. Isaac Alexander was 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI.
—Tuesday's game was the final home date of the season. According to attendance figures attached to each boxscore, JSU drew 25,931 in 26 home dates, including 677 on Tuesday. That's an average of 960 a game, which beats the 377 JSU averaged in its last season in the old stadium in 2016.
—Case on how the Gamecocks have played as they have a chance at a championship: "I've been really happy with what we've done the last six, seven weeks. I'm not saying we've been great. I'm not saying we've played unbelievable baseball, but there's been a different feeling about it the last six or seven weeks. For the most part, we've found a way to competitive and win. But, we know come Thursday night, we're going to start 0-0 with Austin Peay."
—Frederick on how the team has played: "Right now, we look pretty complete. We've been pitching well, playing good defense and hitting well. If we have a night in which one slacks off, another category usually picks it up. We've been able to find ways to win lately."
—Jacksonville State enters the Austin Peay series at 31-21 after winning 10 of its last 11 games. Austin Peay is 30-20. Both are 19-8 in the OVC. The Thursday and Friday games are at 6 p.m., while the Saturday game is at 1 p.m.