Albany State baseball players, from left, Ryan Latner, Andrew Bacon and Allen Hardy celebrate after beating Benedict on Saturday to clinch the No. 1 seed in the SIAC tournament later this month. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — As soon as Ryan Latner tackled Andrew Bacon just off the infield grass, Albany State pitcher John Paul Benard knew exactly where he wanted to be.
“I had to get on the bottom of the pile,” Benard said. “I had to be on the bottom.”
He made it — and eventually so did the rest of his Albany State teammates, piling on top of Latner and Bacon in celebration after sweeping a doubleheader against Benedict and clinching the East Division’s top seed in the SIAC tournament later this month.
The Rams (25-15, 17-0) remained undefeated in the conference — but win No. 17 on Saturday felt a little sweeter than the previous 16.
“That was the first of hopefully many celebrations this year,” Benard said. “It felt really good. We have all worked hard and are doing things right. It felt really good to earn that.”
Benard threw a one-hit gem to lead ASU to an 8-0 win in the opener, and then the Rams overcame an early deficit in Saturday’s second game to win, 8-4.
It’s all clicking right now for the Rams, who have won 19 of their last 22 games and have outscored SIAC opponents 175-48 since March 1.
“This feels great,” ASU center fielder Reise McDaniel said. “(Earning the No. 1 seed) was expected, and we just had to complete the goal. We worked hard all offseason, and this is what we wanted.”
Benard dominated Benedict (17-18, 11-5) — which entered the series against ASU second in the East Division standings — in the opener and allowed only three base runners. Benedict’s lone hit came in the fourth inning, and two more Tigers reached base on walks.
“I was telling everybody this week that my arm felt good and that I was really coming into my zone on the mound,” Benard said. “All of my stuff is working, curve, changeup. And I am hitting my spots.”
He struck out seven in his fifth complete game of the season.
“He was throwing strikes and keeping kids off balance,” ASU coach Kenyan Conner said. “A one-hitter. You can’t ask for more than that.”
The Rams scored once in the first inning and added two more in the second inning but didn’t put the first game away until the bottom of the sixth inning when they plated five runs. McDaniel led the Rams in the opener with two hits and three RBIs, while Latner (1-3, 2 RBI), former Westover star Jacob Campbell (1-3, RBI) and Uwen Udofia (0-2, RBI) also knocked in runs.
McDaniel was 3-for-4 in the second game and finished the doubleheader with five hits, four RBIs, three runs and a pair of doubles.
“I’m just trying to stay consistent, be humble and get on base for the team,” said the speedy McDaniel. “I know that when I get on base I can make it work on the base paths.”
McDaniel, who hits in the two-hole, is part of the Rams’ top of the batting order, which combined for 11 hits and 12 RBIs in the doubleheader.
“That’s why they are at the top,” Conner said. “The top of the order did their thing, and that’s all I can ask.”
Benedict’s lone lead in either game came in the top of the first inning of the second game when Andre Collum hit a deep, two-run homer off Bacon. But ASU immediately responded with two runs in the bottom of the first inning when McDaniel scored on a Udofia RBI single and Campbell stole home.
“We have been scoring runs all year, so when it comes down to two runs in the first inning that’s not going to shake us at all,” Conner said.
Nobody settled in better than Bacon, who allowed just two hits and no runs the next three innings before Benedict plated two more in the fifth inning. Bacon, a Leesburg native, responded with 1-2-3 innings in the sixth and seventh to slam the door on the Tigers’ comeback.
“These kids have been pitching well, and their confidence is high,” Conner said. “The first four or five minutes (Bacon’s) mechanics weren’t there, but once he found his mechanics he was good.”
ASU broke the 2-2 tie in the second game on a Robert Latner two-run single in the third inning. The Rams then stretched their lead to 8-2 in the fourth inning with RBIs from McDaniel, Campbell and Robert Latner.
Last season, the Rams similarly clinched the East Division’s No. 1 seed with a win against Benedict at the same point during the season. The 2013 ASU team was stunned in the opening round of the SIAC tournament by Tuskegee — a memory that kept Conner from celebrating Saturday’s victories too much or from joining his team in the pile next to first base.
“We had the No. 1 seed last year and we saw what happened then,” said Conner, who was then asked if he would join the pile if his team wins the title.
“Maybe so then,” he added.