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No. 7 Panthers hold off Illinois Wesleyan, 7-4, in first round of NCAA Baseball Regional

Blake Stevens

MILLINGTON, Tenn.—In their first-ever NCAA Division III post-season appearance, the No. 7 Birmingham-Southern Panthers defeated Illinois Wesleyan, 7-4, at USA Stadium in the first game of the NCAA Central Regional.

The top-seeded Panthers move to 36-7, whle the sixth-seeded Titans fall to 29-16. IWU has a rich history in the NCAA tournament, having won the national championship in 2010.

BSC will face the loser of the game between third-seeded and 22nd-ranked DePauw and fourth-seeded Emory tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. CT. The game between DePauw and Emory will be played tonight at 7 p.m.

The Titans scored in the top of the first inning to open the game, but the Panthers responded with a run in the bottom of the first to tie it up 1-1. Junior Stephen Denton led off with a single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by sophomore Evan Grovenstein. A ground-out by senior Jon Walker moved Denton to third, and he scored on an RBI single from sophomore Austin Justice.

The Panthers did not allow another Titan hit until the top of the fourth, and IWU scored another single run in the top of the fifth, thanks in part to a Panther error by Walker, who had previously injured his wrist when he was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the third.

A one-run bomb by junior Bruce Maxwell - who leads the nation in home runs - in the bottom of the fifth tied things up, 2-2; it was Maxwell's 15th long ball of the year.

The Titans added another run in the top of the sixth courtesy of two extra-base hits and another BSC error to go up 3-2.

The Panthers took back the lead in the bottom of the seventh, though. Denton led off with a single, followed by a walk by Grovenstein. Maxwell flew out to left for the first out, but a two-RBI triple by Walker brought Denton and Grovenstein home to put BSC up 4-3, prompting a pitching change for Illinois Wesleyan. After a swinging strikeout for the second out, freshman Zach Wagner singled up the middle, scoring Walker from third and putting the Panthers up 5-3 for their largest lead of the game thus far. After another pitching change by the Titans, a looking strikeout ended the inning.

BSC also made a pitching change, bringing in sophomore right-hand reliever Miles Nordgren for the possible save. The Titans led off the top of the eighth with a fly-out but followed that with three straight singles, the third one bringing in a run to cut it to 5-4. With the game-tying run on second and the game-winner on first and only one out on the board, the BSC defense came up huge in the next at-bat, turning a double play from shortstop Grovenstein to freshman second baseman David Bourbonnais to Walker at first to end the half-inning.

The Panthers increased their lead in the bottom of the eighth, with Denton reaching on an error with two down already. He went to second on a wild pitch, and a single down the left field line by Grovenstein brought him across the plate to put BSC up 6-4. An RBI double from Maxwell plated Grovenstein for the 7-4 lead. Walker recorded another single after that, but a fly-out to right-center ended the inning.

BSC allowed one runner to reach base in the top of the ninth on an error, but held the Titans hitless and scoreless for the 7-4 win.

The Panthers recorded 12 total hits, led by Denton who was 3-5. Maxwell, Walker, and Perry were all 2-4, and Maxwell and Walker led with two RBI each.

Freshman right-hander Blake Stevens - the SCAC Newcomer-of-the-Year - started on the mound and got the win to move to 7-2 on the year. He struck out nine Titans while allowing six hits and two earned runs. Nordgren got his fifth save of the year while giving up three hits and one earned run.