DURHAM, N.C. – It has been 19 years since the Atlantic Coast Conference Baseball Championship had a repeat winner. Florida State will take its best shot at updating the record book on Sunday.
The defending champion and sixth-seeded Seminoles scrapped for the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning and slipped past second-seeded Clemson, 5-4, in Saturday night’s second ACC Baseball Championship semifinal game.
Florida State (42-17) will face No. 5 seed Louisville (43-16) in Sunday’s championship game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park (noon, ESPN2). Clemson (45-14) remains hopeful of a high national seed when NCAA regional sites and pairings are unveiled Sunday night and Monday.
Wake Forest, with ACC titles in 1998 and 1999, is the last school to claim back-to-back championships. Both of those tournaments were also played at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Florida State seeks its third title in four years on Sunday and its eighth ACC baseball championship overall.
FSU and Clemson were a combined 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position on Saturday night, but Rhett Aplin delivered for the Seminoles when it mattered most. After Jackson Lueck drew a one-out walk in the top of the ninth inning and stole second base, Aplin rapped an RBI single to right field to snap a 4-4 deadlock.
FSU reliever C.J. Van Eyk (7-0), who worked the final three innings in relief of starter Cole Sands, hit the Tigers’ Keith Wilkie with a pitch to put the tying run on base with one out in the bottom of the ninth. But Van Eyk retired Seth Beer on a fly ball to deep left, and then struck out Chris Williams swinging to end the game.
Ryley Gilliam (2-3), the third Clemson pitcher of the night, took the loss on a night the pitching staffs of the two teams combined to strike out 24 batters – including 11 by FSU’s Sands in six innings.
Drew Mendoza’s two-run homer in the top of the second inning staked the Seminoles to a 2-0 lead, but Williams countered with a 377-foot, three-run blast in the bottom of the fourth to put Clemson up 3-2. The home run was Williams’ 17th of the season and marked his third consecutive game of the tournament with a three-run shot.
Sands struck out seven consecutive batters following Williams’ home run, buying time until the top of the seventh, when the Seminoles tied the score without registering a base hit. Mendoza led off the inning with a walk, moved up two bases on a pair of groundouts, and then raced home from third on a wild pitch by Tigers reliever Carson Spiers to make it 3-3.
Clemson wasted little time getting the run back, and the Tigers also made it happen without the benefit of a base hit. Grayson Byrd reached on an error by FSU second baseman Rafael Bournigal, and three walks by Van Eyk forced in the go-ahead run.
It could have been worse for the Seminoles, but Van Eyk retired Williams on a called third strike for the final out of the inning. Williams was 7-for-8 with 10 RBI in the tournament prior to that at-bat.
FSU again answered quickly. Lueck opened the eighth inning by sending a 2-2 pitch from Spiers into the right-center field stands for his 15th home run of the season and a 4-4 tie.
But the Tigers also dodged major catastrophe. FSU loaded the bases with no outs via a hit batsman, an infield single and a walk. Gilliam, an All-ACC first-team reliever struck out Mendoza and Reese Albert, then retired J.C. Flowers on a slow roller to third to keep the score deadlocked.
A heavy thunderstorm held up the start of the game by an hour and 19 minutes, reminding fans on both sides of the meeting between their teams in the finals here two seasons ago. Clemson outlasted the Seminoles, 18-13, to win the championship in a game that took eight hours and 19 minutes to complete due to three weather delays.
Florida State will enter Sunday’s game against Louisville with a 14-1 record in its last 15 ACC Championship games. The Seminoles took two of three from the Cardinals in this year’s regular-season series March 29-31 in Tallahassee.
Rhett Aplin singled up the middle in the ninth inning to score Jackson Lueck, giving FSU a 5-4 lead.
The Seminoles will face five-seed Louisville in the ACC Championship Game Sunday at noon. Florida State won 2-of-3 against the Cardinals in Tallahassee, including an 8-7 win on Jonathan Foster’s two-run walk-off home run.
FSU will throw RHP Andrew Karp. The Cardinals will counter with RHP Bobby Miller.
For more information on Florida State baseball, check Seminoles.com for the latest news and scheduling information, or keep up with the team on social media through Twitter (@FSUBaseball), Facebook (/FSUBaseball), and Instagram (@NoleBaseball).