FLORENCE, S.C. – Having already clinched a berth in Sunday's Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship game, the sixth-ranked Lander Bearcats rallied three times against USC Aiken Saturday night before falling 7-4 in the final game of Pool B play at Francis Marion University's Sparrow Stadium.
Second-seeded Lander will take a 38-13 record into Sunday's 1 o'clock championship game versus top seed Columbus State, which is 41-12. The game will also take place at Sparrow Stadium.
The Bearcats won Pool B with a 2-1 record, taking the tie-breaker over 2-1 Montevallo due to being the higher seed while also beating the Falcons head-to-head Friday.
Columbus State, which is ranked fifth nationally one spot ahead of Lander, won Pool A via tie-breaker as the Cougars, Georgia College and North Georgia all went 2-1.
The Bearcats won two of three games at Columbus State this season.
While USC Aiken had no chance of winning Pool B after losing its first two games, Saturday's contest was important to the Pacers as they fight to earn a berth in the NCAA Southeast Regional where they hope to join Lander and Columbus State.
With the win, Aiken improved to 37-16.
The Pacers took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth when Chaz Pal hit a one-out single, Zach Moon walked, and the runners moved up on Brian Parreira's ground out to first. Max Schoen's single to left broke the scoreless tie. But Bearcats left fielder Taylor Kellner easily gunned down Moon at the plate to end the inning.
Lander tied the game on the very next plate appearance in the bottom of the fourth. After Colby Lusignan was thought to have grounded out on the first pitch, the play down the first-base line was ruled foul. Returning to the plate, Lusignan belted a 1-2 pitch over the fence in right center. The 408-foot blast was the senior first baseman's 12th homer of the season.
The Bearcats have now homered in 10 consecutive games, leading the Peach Belt with 84 on the season.
Aiken regained the lead at 3-1 in the top of the fifth. Skylar Mercado reached on an infield error, Nile Goings singled, Tyler Ammerman laid down a sacrifice bunt, Jonathan Banks lifted a sacrifice fly to center, and Mitchell Price added an RBI single.
Pacers starting pitcher Erik Davis cruised into the bottom of the sixth with a two-hitter before Lander finally got to him. Zach Daly drew a one-out walk, moved to third on Lusignan's single down the right field line, and scored on Thomas Berry's single to right. Kellner's two-out double to left center scored Lusignan, tying the game at 3-all and chasing Davis.
The Pacers regained a 4-3 lead in the top of the seventh on Price's two-out RBI single.
But in the bottom of the seventh, the Bearcats would come back to tie the game for the third time. Mason Dodd singled, moved to third on Matt White's hit-and-run single, and scored when Daly beat out a double play attempt to make the score 4-all.
Aiken loaded the bases with no one out against Whitt, with Moon reaching on an infield single, Parreira being hit by a pitch, and Schoen knocking a single through the middle. Matt Thorpe relieved Whitt and struck out the first batter he faced. But Goings followed with a two-run double and Ammerman hit a sacrifice fly, giving the Pacers a 7-4 lead.
Cole Lee (1-0) finished off the Bearcats in the bottom of the ninth, earning the win with 3.1 innings of relief. Whitt (1-1) took the loss.
Leading hitters for Lander were Lusignan, 2-for-3 with a homer and two runs scored; and Keller, 2-for-4 with a double.
The top four hitters in Aiken's lineup were a combined 10-for-16 with two walks and five RBI. Moon and Schoen each had three hits for the Pacers, while Goings and Price had two hits and two RBI apiece.