—B.J. Nobles had the whole day worked out.
When Nobles, normally Western Carolina’s closer, met with head coach Bobby Moranda Saturday night, Moranda told him to be ready to go long the next day. The Catamounts, having already played twice that day, needed to win two more against Mercer on Sunday to take the Southern Conference tournament title—as big a strain on a pitching staff as college baseball can offer. But to Nobles, the answer was clear.
“Gup’s (Bryan Sammons) going to throw the first game,” he told his coach, “I’m going to start the second game.” Moranda liked what he heard. Twenty-four hours later, he liked it even more.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Moranda said Sunday, while over his shoulder, the Fluor Field jumbotron flashed the Western Carolina logo with the words “Tournament Champions” underneath.
Sammons, the Catamounts’ ace, bounced back from a rough outing in their tournament opener on Wednesday to throw seven strong innings in the first game, a 4-2 Western win to force the if-necessary game an hour later. Nobles, who’d started games as a sophomore before moving to the bullpen this year as a junior, then took the ball in the finale.
He set the tone immediately, striking out the first hitter of the game, Ryan Hagan, on a full-count slider. For both Nobles and his coach, this was a vital moment. It was about letting the Bears know he was there to compete—he was not going to just feed them fastballs.
“Those guys are good,” Moranda said. “They lead the country in home runs. They’ve got the best player in the country (Kyle Lewis) on their team. To get them out, you have to use every quadrant. You have to change speeds. You have to elevate. You have to go in. You have to expand. It’s not like you can just do one thing. They make adjustments, and give B.J. credit, he was executing a very complex—almost pro level—plan.”
Nobles himself had to get his mind right after a tumultuous outing Saturday, when he came out of the bullpen in the eighth inning of an eventual loss to Mercer. He faced five hitters, gave up three hits and then watched as an errant pitch struck Bears leadoff hitter Trey Truitt in the head. Truitt stayed down for several moments before walking off the field, but for Nobles, the image took some time to shake. Truitt was later diagnosed with a concussion—he was at the park Sunday but didn’t play.
“That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” Nobles said. “Can’t stand that. I felt terrible. I just had to mentally say, it’s baseball, it happens. So many people told me that yesterday and I still felt bad. I felt bad up until this game, and then I was just like, ‘All right, it’s baseball. You’ve got to flush it.’ ”
Nobles allowed a second-inning run on an RBI double by Jose Hernandez, but he dominated from there. Making his first start since May 15 of last year, Nobles worked 8 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and allowing just five hits. According to Moranda, he missed just two spots all day. One was to Hernandez. The other? That one came in the top of the ninth, and Mercer’s Charlie Madden blasted it for a game-tying home run.
Nobles exited two batters later to a standing ovation from the sizable contingent of Catamount fans. But as the bottom of the ninth played out, his mind was understandably racing.
“I was pacing back and forth the whole ninth,” he said. “I don’t know. I was so scared. I was anxious and nervous. . . . And that pitch happened.”
“That pitch” came from Mercer reliever Conard Broom. The Catamounts loaded the bases with one down in the bottom of the inning before Broom, Mercer’s top reliever, fanned Reece Strong for the second out. But when Broom tried to come inside with his first pitch to No. 9 hitter Nobu Suzuki, the ball sailed and struck Suzuki in the thigh.
Game over, Western wins 3-2. Just like that, the Catamounts were going to regionals for the first time since 2007. Matt Smith, who’d led off the inning with a single, flipped his helmet off as he trotted home, while Suzuki immediately raised his arms in celebration before taking the obligatory jog to first base.
“I can’t remember anything from there,” Nobles said.
Western Carolina won back-to-back Southern Conference regular-season titles in 2013 and 2014 but came up short in the conference tournament both years. This year’s team started the season 3-8, but a non-conference schedule that included road trips to UNC Wilmington, Georgia Tech, Indiana and even a 17-hour bus ride to Kansas State imbued it with a togetherness and a toughness that paid off in Greenville.
The Catamounts rallied from a 9-5 deficit in the final two innings to win that opening game against Wofford on Wednesday, then shook off a late collapse against Mercer in Saturday afternoon’s winners bracket game to beat Samford later that day. Then came Sunday, when they had been just two outs from regionals before Madden’s homer tied the final game, only to gather themselves and win it in the bottom of the ninth.
“I would have to say, from the get-go, we told our guys we’re going to play one of the toughest schedules east of the Mississippi,” Moranda said, “and that’s what’s going to get us ready to win the tournament. ... You’re talking more than half our schedule on the road—we only played 22 home games—and a lot of them against Power Five conferences. We took some lumps early with that. We started playing better with it later in the year. We lost some close games. We just kept telling them, hey, this is going to help us in the tournament.
“This is the payoff. And we’re not done yet, hopefully.”