CLEVELAND, Miss. – Mitch Handley picked the perfect time for his first complete game of the season as the University of North Alabama pitcher shutdown Arkansas Tech in leading the Lions to an 8-3 victory in the opening game of the Morgan Keegan Gulf South Conference Baseball Tournament.
The win sends UNA into a 1 p.m. matchup Tuesday against the winner of the West Florida-Henderson State game. The GSC Tournament win was the first for UNA head coach Mike Keehn and was the first for a UNA baseball team since 2006. Each team had 10 hits in the game but solid defense and clutch hitting helped UNA prevail.
"Coming in we felt like Mitch would pitch well and we would be able to score some runs, but we also felt like defense would be the key and overall we played pretty solid today.," said Keehn.
UNA's first five hits were in the infield and the Lions didn't put a ball into the outfield until the fourth inning. "I kept wondering if we were going to get a ball out of the infield, but we were doing a good job of making contact and forcing them to make plays," said Keehn. "A lot of times this season we have been striking out with guys in scoring position. Today it wasn't pretty at times but we were putting the ball in play and scoring runs by doing it."
The tournament is being played at Ferriss Field, after having to be relocated from Millington, Tenn., after extensive flooding there. It is the first time the GSC Tournament has been played at an on-campus facility since 2000.
Handley, now 6-4 on the season, scattered eight hits and struckout four on the way to the win.
"Mitch did a great job of throwing strikes and not giving them anything, and then we played good defense behind him," said Keehn.
UNA trailed 1-0 after three innings but took the lead for good with a pair of runs in the fourth. Chase Porch and Kevin Williams both singled and moved up on a balk. Dewayne Gunn drove in the tying run with an infield single and UNA then took the lead on a sacrifice fly to right by Jacob Lamar. North Alabama extended its lead in the fifth with a three-run inning. Ross Parker had a leadoff single and stole second. Blake Stroth singled and moved up on a wild pitch. Jared Mothershed drove in Parker with a squeeze bunt that was misplayed and allowed him to reach first. Porch drove in UNA's fourth run with a ground-out and Kevin Williams made it 5-1 with a single up the middle.
Tech got a run back in the bottom of the sixth when Matt Johnson singled, stole second and third and scored on an error. UNA got that run back immediately in the top of the seventh as Mothershed reached on an error, stole second and scored on another ATU error.
In the eighth Jacob Lamar doubled and later scored on a wild pitch to extend UNA's lead to 7-2. Porch then added a solo home run in the ninth, his fifth of the season, to make it 8-2.
Handley then entered the bottom ninth in his quest for a complete game but gave up a leadoff homer to Clint Stroud and a single to Joe Walton before ending the threat. Handley had gone eight innings twice this season in 13 starts
Each team had 10 hits in the game, with UNA led by Williams and Porch with two hits each. Chad Wynn led ATU with three hits.
In getting the win UNA bested ATU starter Josh Floriani, a first-team All-GSC selection who brought a 10-2 record into the game. Floriani allowed seven runs on 10 hits with no walks and four strikeouts.
This was the third time that UNA and Arkansas Tech have faced each other in the GSC Tournament, with UNA recording a win in the opening round in all three contests. Tech now has a nine-game losing streak in GSC Tournament play dating back to 2001.
UNA improved to 28-22 with the win, while Tech falls to 34-18.
North Alabama has won five GSC baseball titles in school history but none since 1999.