FOREST CITY, N.C. – The fifth-seeded Wingate Bulldogs (32-21) combined for 27 hits and five home runs to power a pair of wins over the top-seeded Catawba Indians (38-12), capping a championship run that saw them win five consecutive elimination games to capture the 2015 South Atlantic Conference Baseball Championship on Monday at McNair Field in Forest City, N.C.
The Bulldogs knocked off the Indians 8-2 in game one, defeating a Catawba team that had won its first three games into the championship series, and then completed their pursuit of the title with an 11-5 win in game two.
Wingate earns the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional by virtue of winning the SAC tournament, while Catawba, ranked fifth in the most recent NCBWA national poll, will need an at-large bid to continue its season.
Wingate rode a solid pitching performance and three home runs to force a decisive second game with an 8-2 win in Monday's opener.
After pitching the Bulldogs into the main bracket of the SAC Championship with 5 1/3 innings of three-run ball against Carson-Newman on Thursday, right-hander Brett Morgan returned on just three days rest and pitched well against the Indians over 7 1/3 frames.
Morgan got into some trouble of his own making in the bottom of the second, walking the bases loaded without an out. Luke Setzer drove in two runs with a one-out single that squeaked just through the middle of the infield and into centerfield. Morgan induced a weak fly out and a groundout to keep the inning from escalating any further.
That was the extent of the damage against Morgan, though, as he allowed only two hits with two strikeouts in his start, shutting down a Catawba offense that entered the final day of the SAC tournament batting .361 through three games.
The Bulldogs' potent offense, which compiled a .356 batting average and nine homers in the five games paving the road to Monday, provided plenty of runs in support of Morgan, outhitting the Indians 11-3.
Thomas Spitz - the SAC Championship Most Valuable Player - matched Catawba's output by himself, going 3-for-5 at the plate with three RBI and two home runs. Shane Billings and Michael Godinez added two hits apiece, while Colby Barnette went 1-for-4 with a two-run home run.
After falling behind 2-0, Spitz hit a leadoff dinger and Barnette hit a two-run homer over the wall in left field in the top of the fourth to kick start a 8-0 scoring run for the Bulldogs.
The fifth and sixth frames passed quietly for Wingate, but the Bulldogs put the game out of reach in the top of the seventh, as Michael Godinez plated three runs on a bases-loaded double and later scored on a single from Spitz.
Spitz tacked on the Bulldogs' final run in their final trip to the plate, leading off the top of the ninth with a solo home run that was nearly robbed by Catawba centerfielder Blake Houston.
Brandon Donahue helped preserve the Bulldogs' victory by allowing just one hit and striking out one in 1 2/3 innings of relief.
Catawba's Russ Weiker was saddled with the loss, as he gave up four runs and six hits in six innings.
Setzer was responsible for two of the Indians' three hits.
The Catawba offense showed some signs of life early in game two, striking swiftly against Wingate starter Jimmy Doolittle, who labored through three innings just two days removed from a five-inning outing against Newberry.
SAC Player of the Year Will Albertson connected on a two-out solo home run in the top of the first, while Setzer hit a two-run dinger in the second stanza. Prior to Setzer's homer, Kyle Smith plated a run on a sacrifice fly out, all of which resulted in an early 4-0 cushion for the Indians.
Just as quickly, Wingate's offense erased that deficit, as Josh Clark got the scoring going with a leadoff solo home run in the bottom of the second to make it a 4-1 game.
In the ensuing inning, Spitz drove in a run with a double and Bradley Brown tied it up with a double off the wall in left field.
Catawba took the lead for good in the home half of the fourth, as Brad Cherry led off with a single and scored on a base hit by Billings.
After the fifth frame passed inconsequentially, Wingate broke the game wide open in the bottom of the sixth, scoring five runs on five hits. Each of the Bulldogs' one through four hitters (Billings, Godinez, Spitz, Brown) produced an RBI in that inning, capped by Brown's two-run home run to straightaway centerfield.
The Indians added a single run on T.J. Wharton's RBI double in the top of the eighth, but Wingate erased that on Spitz's run-scoring two-bagger in the bottom of the inning.
Right-handed reliever Tyler Brown shut the door on the Indians, pitching six near-shutout innings allowing just five hits and one run over that span.
Wingate finished with a 16-9 advantage in the hit column, as Billings, Godinez, Spitz and Brown combined for 10 hits and 10 RBI. Spitz and Bradley both went 3-for-5, while Blake Prince was 2-for-4 out of the eight-hole.
Albertson paced the Indians' offense by going 3-for-4 with a home run, while Wharton was the only other hitter to notch multiple hits, going 2-for-4 with an RBI.
Beating Catawba twice in a row was big as a standalone accomplishment. The Indians only lost one three-game SAC series all season, losing two consecutive league tilts only one time. Wingate's run was made even more impressive by a daunting schedule that forced the Bulldogs to play their way into the double elimination portion of the tournament and then overcome an early loss by winning five straight win-or-go-home games.
SAC Championship Most Valuable Player Thomas Spitz carried an offense that led the entire field with a .357 batting average, with no other team that played more than three games batting better than .303. Spitz hit .517 with a tournament-best 16 RBI, collecting five doubles and three homers.