Luke Bolka hit a two-run homer as part of a decisive five-run fifth inning to power No. 2-seeded East Carolina past top-seeded Houston 9-1 Sunday in the American Athletic Conference Baseball Championship game at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.
The Pirates entered the tournament as a strong candidate to make the NCAA tournament, and now there is no drama: The Pirates secured an automatic bid and will return to the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2012. The NCAA tournament selection show is at noon Monday.
Tournament Most Outstanding Player Hunter Allen went 3-for-5 with two runs scored and pitcher Nick Durazo worked five innings of one-hit shutout relief.
The Pirates, who went 4-0 in the six-day, eight-team tournament, earn the American’s automatic bid to the NCAA Championship. It is East Carolina's first conference tournament title since the Pirates won the 2002 Conference USA crown.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Lance Bolka hit a two-run home run for East Carolina (40-20), which scored eight of its nine runs with two outs. Leftfielder Luke Lowery went 2-for-5 with three RBIs, while centerfielder Reid Love was 2-for-4 with two runs scored.
The Pirates had struck first when Charlie Yorgen was hit by a pitch and took second on Reid Love's base hit to leftfield. The runners moved up on a double steal and Yorgen came home on Eric Tyler's grounder to second to give East Carolina a 1-0 lead. Houston tied it in the bottom of the second inning when Corey Julks reached on a leadoff hit to center, moved to second on a walk, was bunted to third and scored on Justin Montemayor’s sacrifice fly to left.
With the score tied at 1, Bolka ripped his home run to left field. Bolka, the Pirates’ No. 9 hitter who had just 24 at bats and one RBI on the season prior to the game, gave East Carolina a 3-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning when he sent a line drive over the leftfield fence for a two-run home run. That ignited a five-run fifth inning that effectively put the game away as Lowery’s bases-loaded single gave the Pirates a 6-1 cushion.
The lead proved to be plenty for Durazo, who came on after Pirate starting pitcher David Lucroy was unable to start the fifth inning due to cramping. Durazo retired 15 of the 16 batters he faced, allowing only an eighth-inning single, and struck out five to improve to 5-0 on the year.
Allen was chosen as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after he went 9-for-18 with a double, triple and six runs scored. He joined Lowery, Love and pitcher Joe Ingle as the Pirates' representatives on the all-tournament team.
Houston, which saw an eight-game winning streak snapped, fell to 42-18 on the year. Rightfielder Kyle Survance went 2-for-4 and was the only Cougar player with multiple hits. Houston had shortstop Connor Wong, catcher Ian Rice, outfielder Corey Julks and pitcher Andrew Lantrip on the all-tournament team.
The other all-tournament selections were infielder Vinny Siena and designated hitter Joe DeRoche-Duffin of UConn and infielder Brandon Montgomery and outfielder Darien Tubbs of Memphis.
NCAA Championship selections will be announced Monday. The American enters the NCAA Championship as the No. 3-rated conference in terms of RPI.