Southern's baseball team trailed by five runs in the fourth inning against Texas Southern on Saturday, the Jaguars' hopes of reaching the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship game appearing dim.
However, coach Kerrick Jackson went to his bullpen, and that changed everything. The Jaguars bounced back for a 7-6 win, putting them in Sunday's SWAC championship game against Alabama State.
The title game will feature the conference's two No. 1 seeds — Southern from the Western Division and Alabama State from the Eastern. The winner gets an automatic bid to an NCAA regional.
“(The bullpen) was huge,” Jackson said. “For Jackson Cullen to come in and throw the zeroes that he threw, and then Connor Whalen is Connor Whalen. There's a reason he's the (SWAC) relief pitcher of the year. He hasn't given up an earned run all year long. The man's got ice water in his veins.”
Cullen entered with two outs in the third and shut out Texas Southern for 3 1/3 innings. Whalen started the eight and didn't allow a base runner the final two innings.
That turned off the Tigers' run-scoring faucet. A big fifth inning got the Jaguars within striking distance on the way to tying the score 6-6 in the sixth.
The seventh proved eventful. With one out, first baseman Hunter David was hit by a pitch, and shortstop Malik Blaise followed with a double to left field, putting runners on second and third.
Then the rain came. After a 20-minute break, catcher Bobby Johnson walked, loading the bases, and left fielder Hampton Hudson hit a fly ball to center field, scoring David with what proved to be the winning run.
The loss ended Texas Southern's hopes for getting a tournament three-peat. Coach Michael Robertson said he told his players to keep their heads up.
“I told them I don't know what else we could have done,” said Robertson, whose team had to win two games Friday to stay alive, including an 8-6 win against Southern. “Southern is a team that can score late, and they've done that all season.”
Robertson agreed the bullpen was the difference. Texas Southern's bullpen is not deep, and bringing in its best pitcher, Aron Solis, wasn't an option. Between Wednesday and Friday's games, Solis pitched 240 pitches.
“I wasn't going to do that to him,” Robertson said.
Trailing 6-1 entering the bottom of the fifth, Southern scored three runs on four hits, against starter Chris Suarez, who actually is the Tigers' second baseman. The big hit was third baseman Tyler LaPorte's one-out single that scored designated hitter Coby Taylor and center fielder Javeyan Williams, who had doubled. Second baseman Johnny Johnson singled in LaPorte, bringing the Jaguars to within 6-4.
Southern chased Suarez in the sixth when it scored two runs on Taylor's RBI single against the shift and LaPorte's single that brought in Taylor.
The Jaguars are in the championship game for the first time since 2015, when they lost to Texas Southern. Alabama State won the title in 2016, the only team other than Texas Southern in the past four years to do so.
“I think it will be a competitive game,” Jackson said. “They are one of the top teams in our conference. You've got the battle of two No. 1 seeds from both sides.”