AIKEN – Graham Ramos and Thomas Berry combined to drive in nine runs as the nationally second-ranked Lander Bearcats reached another new milestone in their historic season, beating the University of Montevallo 15-5 Sunday evening at USC Aiken's Roberto Hernandez Stadium to win their first Peach Belt Conference Tournament baseball championship in school history.
It was Lander's 17th consecutive win.
The Bearcats (47-6) received an automatic berth into the NCAA Division II National Tournament for the second time in school history though Lander had cemented its place in the field of 48 many victories ago.
Lander will host the NCAA Southeast Regionals at Dolny Stadium Thursday through Sunday. The Bearcats will be the top seed in the double-elimination regional, followed by Mount Olive (40-11), Peach Belt regular season runner-up Columbus State (36-15), USC Aiken (36-15), Georgia College (34-15) and Catawba (33-18). Lander will face South Atlantic Conference champion Catawba in Thursday's first round at a time to be determined.
The Bearcats were making their second Peach Belt Conference Tournament final appearance in their 17-year program history. They lost in the championship game two years ago.
This time, top seed Lander swept three games in the single-elimination PBC event in Aiken. The Bearcats downed eighth-seeded Francis Marion 14-4 on Saturday behind Connor Lewis's three homers and outlasted No. 4 Georgia College 10-9 in Sunday's semifinals before beating seventh seed Montevallo.
Ramos belted a three-run homer and two-run single while Berry added a two-run homer and two-run double as Lander extended its school record for victories in a season. The Bearcats won their first ever PBC regular season title two weeks ago.
Montevallo ended its season at 31-21.
The Bearcats have not lost since falling 6-1 to USC Aiken at Roberto Hernandez Stadium on April 5.
Lander picked mid-week starting pitcher Ryan Jones to start Sunday evening's championship game, choosing to save ace Dylan Wolchik for the regionals. Wolchik did not make an appearance in the PBC Tournament. Jones got the nod despite also starting the first game Saturday when he gave up four runs in only one-plus inning (facing two batters in the second).
Montevallo gave sophomore reliever Aron McRee his first career start after 44 relief appearances over the last two seasons.
Jones (10-0) pitched brilliantly this time, allowing only two infield singles while striking out seven and walking four in five shutout innings. He tied Wolchik for the team lead in wins.
McRee (4-2) took the loss, allowing eight runs on seven hits and three walks in 4.2 innings.
The Bearcats took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first when Patrick Grady reached on an infield single and Berry followed with a line drive homer over the right-field fence. It was Berry's fifth home run of the season.
Montevallo threatened in the bottom of the fourth when Will Fulmer drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on a balk, and advanced to third on Jackson Slaid's ground out to the right side. But Jones got a big out when he fanned Falcons cleanup hitter Benny Rodriguez. After hitting Matthew Haskins with a pitch, Jones struck Brandon Marshall out looking to end the inning.
The Bearcats seized the momentum, putting the game away with six runs in the top of the fifth with five scoring after two were out. Austin Dunn drew a one-out walk, Thomas Bess singled to right, and Erik Lunde singled to left to load the bases.
Grady plated the first run of the inning with a bases loaded walk. And after McRee seemingly got a big out when he caught the hot-hitting Lewis looking on a 3-2 pitch, Berry smashed a two-out, two-run double to left center. Weston Lawing followed with an RBI single to right and stole second, and Ramos delivered a two-run single off diving shortstop Dane Hutcheon's glove to make it 8-0.
The Falcons loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth on a pair of walks and an infield single. But with two outs, Lander second baseman Ramos dove to his right to field Slaid's sharp grounder up the middle and while lying on the ground, he flipped to shortstop Lunde for the force out.
Bearcats reliever Jay Robinson, making only his fifth appearance of the season, retired Montevallo in order in the sixth with two strikeouts and a ground out while adding another strikeout in the seventh.
Bryce Clifton relieved Robinson with two on and one out in the seventh and walked Slaid with the bases loaded to score Montevallo's first run of the game. But with the bases loaded and two out, Ramos once again made a big play when he caught Rodriguez's sinking liner at second.
Lander put together its second six-run rally of the night in the eighth, increasing its lead to 14-1. The same three hitters started the rally.
Dunn was hit by a pitch, Bess reached on an error by the shortstop, and Lunde walked to load the bases. Grady hit a two-run single, Berry walked, and Lawing lofted a sacrifice fly to right on which Haskins made a nice over-the-shoulder catch. Ramos followed with a three-run homer well over the fence in left, giving him seven homers and 64 RBI on the season.
Matt Thorpe relieved for the Bearcats in the bottom of the eighth, striking out the first batter before walking Marshall and allowing Jeremy Hyde's single. JD Waite relieved Thorpe and yielded Hutcheon's run-scoring ground out and Chase Bryant's RBI single. Both runs were charged to Thorpe.
Bess hit a leadoff double in the top of the ninth, moved to third on Tyler Wilson's single and scored Lander's 15th run of the night on a wild pitch.
Lander reliever Tyler Broome took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and allowed two runs on three hits and a walk but struck out the side, including Todd Thompson looking on a pitch on the outside corner for the final out.
The Bearcats dog piled at the mound in celebration of the championship.
Lewis was named PBC Tournament MVP with his four homers and eight RBI in the three games while Grady and Berry also made the All-Tournament team. Berry was 8-for-15 with a homer and six RBI in the tournament while Ramos was 4-for-15 but saved his best game for last. Montevallo's Slaid, Hyde and Jeremy Bagnall were also named All-Tournament.
Leading hitters in the championship game for Lander were Ramos, 2-for-5 with a homer and five RBI; Berry, 2-for-5 with a double, homer, three runs scored and four RBI; Grady, 2-for-3 with two runs scored and three RBI; Lunde, 2-for-5 with two runs scored; and Bess, 2-for-5 with a double and three runs scored.