The Jacksonville State catcher hit the first walk-off homer of his life, a solo shot with one out in the ninth inning, to give the Gamecocks a 2-1 win over Eastern Illinois and a sweep of their Ohio Valley Conference series.
It was the third homer of Bartlett’s JSU career — all this season — and it pushed the Gamecocks (15-14, 9-3 OVC) over .500 for the second time this season.
“The past couple years I’ve struggled with hitting, but I keep working,” said Bartlett, a career .184 hitter in a platoon role with the Gamecocks. “I’ve tried changing my (mental) approach this past winter and I think that really worked.”
The game-winner proved a bit of redemption for the junior from Indiana after failing to deliver with two runners in scoring position in the seventh inning of a 1-1 game.
The Gamecocks did push across the tying run that inning with three straight singles off EIU starter Matt Borens, but could have gotten a whole lot more. A sacrifice moved the runners into scoring position, but two EIU relievers struck out Bartlett and pinch-hitter Trey Gamble — both looking — to throw a blanket over the fire.
The Gamecocks threatened again in the eighth, loading the bases with three straight one-out walks off Jake Johansmeier, but the Panthers (6-18, 0-8) escaped that with two foul pops.
Bartlett came to the plate in the ninth and sent Johansmeier’s first-pitch fastball over the left-field fence.
“I went up there and took it personal,” Bartlett said. “I was angry with my last at-bat and focused and I just hit the ball.
“It’s not like I’m going to fight the guy or anything. It was just, ‘hey, lock it in, focus up, let’s get this done.’ It’s really weird, a lot of my home runs I don’t really remember. You just see the pitch and you’re reacting and it’s kind of like that. This was the exact same thing. I saw the pitch and I hit it.”
The tightness of the game allowed for a lot of the second-guessing that is unique to baseball.
In the seventh, JSU coach Jim Case stayed with Bartlett because he thought the pitcher’s ball fit Bartlett’s hitting style. Then he brought out seldom-used freshman Sanders Ferrel, a left-handed contact hitter with only five at-bats, to hit for Chase Silvani, but when the Panthers called for left-hander Ben Kennedy, Case switched to righty-hitting Gamble (.175) instead of catcher Cal Lambert or freshman Gavin Golson, who entered the game anyway after the inning at second base.
With bases-loaded in the eighth, he stayed with senior Zach Elbirt (.105) with freshman Ty Pierce (.111) — the last lefty-swinging position player available — left. Elbirt pinch-ran for Paschal Petrongolo in the seventh-inning threat.
“I didn’t do a whole lot right today,” Case said. “From the standpoint of just having the team ready to go I’m not sure I did and the moves I made offensively — or I did not make — did not seem to be the right moves.
“The moves I had to make today I don’t think I made very good ones, and I think it goes back to the preparation. I’m not sure I really had them ready to play. I’m happy as a lark we won all three games, but to me, I’m not sure we were really ready and that’s my responsibility.”
The move Case didn’t make in the ninth worked out best. The 12th-year Gamecocks coach said he never considered pinch-hitting Lambert for Bartlett as a reaction to the missed opportunity in the seventh.
“You’re not going to be successful every time and obviously (Bartlett) was disappointed after the seventh inning,” Case said. “But to come back up in that situation … it picked our team up. We needed something like that to happen. It was a very big hit. Very proud of him.”
Adam Polk and Michael Mason both held their ground in the pitcher’s duel for the Gamecocks, but closer Travis Stout “kind of vultured a win” by holding off the Panthers in the ninth.
He came on after a leadoff walk and, harking back to his infielder instincts, turned a double play on a comebacker of the mound. He gave up an infield single and bunt single just past his glove, but got the final out on a 3-2 pitch.
Stout had a win and two saves in the series. He had a save and a win in the Gamecocks’ sweep of SIU-Edwardsville earlier this season. Record-setting closer Todd Hornsby had three saves in a four-game sweep of Harvard in 2011.
“It’s definitely the first time I think I’ve pitched in all three games; I’ve always wanted to,” Stout said. “It’s always a good thing when your closer can pitch in the three games. It means you’re doing something right; you’re either ahead or you’re really close.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.