—Never underestimate the power of a good nap. Any doubts? Just ask Kramer Ferrell.
Ferrell and his Western Carolina teammates endured a gut-punch loss to Mercer, 9-8, Saturday afternoon at the Southern Conference tournament, leading most of the way before a late surge by the Bears left WCU having to regroup with its season now on the line. With a couple hours to kill before having to be back at Fluor Field for an elimination game against Samford, the Catamounts retreated to their hotel. There was a brief team meeting, but for much of that time, the players were left to their own devices.
Ferrell and his fellow self-described “old guy” outfielders decided the answer was to catch a few winks.
“We've got about an hour and a half, two hours to get food, do whatever we wanted,” Ferrell said. “I took a nap. The outfielders, we're all really old. So we all went back and took a nap. Some people went to dinner. It was disappointing—really disappointing—to lose that first game, but we wanted to make sure we came out and gave it our all the second game."
Ferrell might need to sleep more before every game. The senior had already collected two hits and four RBIs in the Mercer game. A few hours later against Samford, all he did was go 4-for-5 with two more RBIs and a run scored as the Catamounts did keep their season alive, eliminating the Bulldogs 7-4 and setting up a rematch with Mercer Sunday afternoon for the SoCon title. WCU will have to beat Mercer twice.
"For us older guys, this is about all we got,” he said, “so you really just leave it out there on the field. Our team, we're a pretty close team. The younger guys really understand that and try to play for us. We play for each other, and I think that's how we get our energy."
Western opened up a 7-1 lead in the middle innings and got all it could’ve asked for on the mound from junior lefty Dillon Bray. Bray came into the night with a 10.12 ERA but held the heavy-hitting Bulldogs to just one run over the first five frames, coming out after 5 1/3 in what was his longest outing of the year.
Still, Samford’s proved it’s never out of a game, having come back from a seven-run deficit to beat East Tennessee State just a day earlier. When Heath Quinn and Alex Lee connected for solo homers in the sixth and Samford pieced together another run in the seventh to close within 7-4, the Bulldogs felt another comeback building. Until Western brought in Korey Anderson.
The junior righthander Anderson was just 1-3, 8.84 himself coming into Saturday, but he’d thrown the ball well over two shutout innings in the Mercer game when head coach Bobby Moranda brought him on to try to quell Samford’s momentum in the nightcap. Anderson’s not unaccustomed to being extended—he made a seven-inning start against Furman on May 8—but he also admitted afterward that pitching in two games in a day was something he hadn’t done since Little League.
“Today against Mercer, I felt pretty confident,” Anderson said. “I was getting the ball by them pretty good. Just came in the second time to do it for these seniors, they deserve it. Live to see another day."
Anderson’s approach was straightforward. There were some sliders and changeups mixed in here or there, but for the most part, he fed Samford a steady diet of upper 80s and low 90s fastballs. Although he did allow an inherited runner to score, Anderson retired the first five hitters he faced and struck out the side in the eighth, all of them swinging on fastballs. Two of those victims were Heath Quinn and Austin Edens, the Bulldogs’ biggest stars with a combined 40 home runs between them.
"The thing he did is he elevated the fastball and we didn't lay off of it,” Samford head coach Casey Dunn said. “He really pitched at the top and above the strike zone, and we struggled to lay off of it. Give him credit, I think he was out there just trying to cut it loose and it worked."
Anderson pitched around a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth, ending the game with his fourth strikeout—on another fastball, of course—to send Western to the championship round. The final tally for Anderson’s day—five shutout innings against two different prolific offenses, with seven strikeouts and just three hits allowed. Moranda admitted afterward he wished he’d left Anderson in the Mercer game longer, that maybe Western wouldn’t have had to play the nightcap if he had. But at the same, in the coach’s words, “that’s water under the bridge right now.”
What matters is the Catamounts are through to Sunday, regardless of the route they took to get there.
“I've seen (Anderson) throw well, but that was the best I've ever seen him throw,” Moranda said. “He was a kid out of high school that was highly recruited that we landed, but he hurt his shoulder in high school his senior year, so he had shoulder surgery and it took him about three years to recover from that. Now it looks like his arm is back where it needs to be.”
Western should be able to turn to ace Bryan Sammons, who albeit struggled in his first outing of the tournament, on four days’ rest Sunday, as will Mercer with its No. 1 in Ryan Askew. Having to win two games against the regular-season champion Bears will be a tall task, but after how they competed Saturday, the Catamounts have reason to believe.
Just make sure they get enough sleep.
"I think we're just jacked up,” Ferrell said. “We're happy to keep playing. We're just going to try to play our game.”