At home in Hattiesburg

Good thing some of the Shreveport boys went with Louisiana Tech’s baseball team this weekend to Hattiesburg, Miss., where the Bulldogs won the CUSA Tournament and some home boys found themselves playing dramatic roles.

Sophomore utility infielder Riggs Easterling, in his first year at Tech after starring at Loyola College Prep and Mississippi Delta Community College, scored his third and most important run of the year, the game-winner in Sunday’s 9-8 championship game victory over UTSA. The speedy Easterling had come on to pinch-run for CUSA Defensive Player of the Year Logan McLeod, who got the winning rally started with an infield single.

Junior lefthander Jonathan Fincher of C.E. Byrd cleverly brought along his left hand and even his left arm and together, the gang combined for 10 innings. He threw three innings and just 36 pitches in relief in the 4-0 win over Charlotte Wednesday; he gave up two hits, struck out two and didn’t walk anybody.

He started Saturday night’s elimination game, pitched seven innings, threw 96 pitches, gave up six hits, five runs, struck out eight, walked one, and left the game with a 5-5 tie; Tech scored two in the bottom of the ninth for an 8-7 win and its first walk-off victory of the season.

It’s second was Sunday, and the final at-bat starred senior Steele Netterville, Fincher’s high school friend and teammate, part of the future Fincher & Netterville Doctors ’R’ Us duo. But before medical school, the two are trying to get to Omaha, the next hurdle being the Austin Regional that begins when Tech plays Dallas Baptist at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Sunday’s hurdle was Step 1 and provided more drama than any appendicitis case Netterville might face down the road. The stage for Netterville: teammates on second and third, score 8-8, two outs, bottom nine. Righthanded hitter Netterville against righty reliever Braylon Owens.

Swing, foul ball, 0-1.

Outside and high, 1-1.

Called strike, 1-2. Looked outside. Netterville reacted, as did Tech’s Taylor Young, who’d been intentionally walked and was on second; he went semi-nuts and spread his palms to suggest just how outside the zone the pitch had been.

The sophomore Netterville might have been dead meat. Though back then he led the Bulldogs in extra base hits, tied for the lead in homers and was third in RBI, his strikeouts were high and he gave a lot of at-bats away. And batting in the heart of the order, he was going to get pitched tough anyway; he had to learn how not to help the pitcher.

“Three years ago, it was harder for me to flush it and move on to the next pitch,” Netterville said. “I’d have likely swung at the next pitch and still been mad at the umpire. (Hitting) Coach (Mitch) Gaspard really helped me grow as a hitter and as a person, along with (head coach) Lane Burroughs; they’ve been the perfect combination. Then you add in all the positive energy from Coop (pitching coach Cooper Fouts).”

The perfect combination included lots of at-bats, lots of pitching machine sliders, lots of video studying. Work and patience.

“You know him,” Gaspard said of Tech’s 3-hole hitter. “He was going to work at it until he figured it out.”

He’s hitting .311 now for the 42-19 Bulldogs with 45 career homers and a program record 62 career doubles. That and lots of practice waited for the 1-2 pitch Sunday.

Slider outside. Laid off. 2-2.

Then … it appeared Owens balked which, if called, would have ended the game and scored Easterling from third then. Netterville’s reaction was semi-violent. He stepped back. Pointed toward the rubber. Glanced at the dugout. But just as quickly, he stepped back into the box and got ready.

“The umpire told me to focus, and that just made more mad,” Netterville said. “First, he strikes me on a ball, then misses a balk. So, I was a little heated on the 2-2.

“But,” he said, “I cleared my mind. I heard Coach Gaspard in the background telling me to make the pitcher get the ball up, to relax.”

The pitch was worth his wait. Fastball up and away. Netterville might have been a little late with his swing, but a little late was just right. He bounced the ball just inside the first base bag and into the safety of right field to end the at-bat.

And to end the tournament.

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