Sixth-seeded Southeast suffered its first loss in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament when it fell to fourth-seeded Eastern Illinois 7-6 in the crucial winners bracket final.
Southeast did not go down without a major fight, rallying from a 5-1 deficit and then nearly overcoming a 7-5 deficit in the ninth inning. The Redhawks had runners on first and third in the bottom of the ninth when the game ended.
"We don't have anything to hang our heads about," Southeast coach Mark Hogan said. "We just fell a little bit short."
The Redhawks (23-35), who won their first two tournament games for the first time since 1998, face a daunting task as they chase the title in the six-team double-elimination event.
Southeast needs three straight victories beginning at noon Saturday against top-seeded Austin Peay in the losers bracket final. The Redhawks upset the defending tournament champion Govs on Thursday night.
The Southeast-Austin Peay winner comes right back to take on EIU (29-27) at 3:30 p.m. in the championship round. An if-necessary title contest would be played at noon Sunday.
The winner of Friday night's matchup has captured every crown since the OVC began its current tournament format in 2005. But the Redhawks remain upbeat.
"We're still a hot team. I feel pretty good about tomorrow," redshirt freshman right fielder Andy Lennington said. "We've got the offense and we've got the pitchers."
EIU, which took two of three from the Redhawks during the regular season, capitalized on Southeast's only error of the game to score two runs in the top of the seventh inning to break a 5-5 tie.
Southeast nearly came back in the bottom of the ninth.
Lennington singled with one out, and redshirt freshman Jason Blum delivered a pinch-hit single with two outs.
Senior second baseman Taylor Heon's RBI single made it 7-6, and Southeast still had runners on first and third. But sophomore center fielder Cole Bieser struck out.
"It says a lot about this team and the heart we've shown," All-American senior third baseman Trenton Moses said.
The Panthers' seventh-inning flurry began when No. 9 hitter Nathan Sopena drew a one-out walk from Southeast starter Dylan Lynn. Caleb Howell's single sent Sopena to third and Howell took second on the throw.
Cameron Berra's ground ball got by Moses for an error, which allowed the go-ahead run to score. It was ruled earned although Moses likely would have had a play at the plate. An unearned run came in on a sacrifice fly.
"I just took my eyes off it, I guess," Moses said.
Southeast had a golden opportunity in the bottom of the seventh when it put runners on second and third with one out. But the Redhawks failed to capitalize.
The Redhawks, who never led, fell behind 5-1 on EIU's four-run fourth inning that featured four hits. Ben Thoma's third home run of the tournament, a two-RBI shot, capped the uprising.
Southeast pulled even with its four-run fifth inning that included four hits and an error. Lennington's two-RBI single tied things.
But EIU answered back with its two-run seventh despite getting just one hit.
"We handled their momentum swing and got some momentum back," EIU coach Jim Schmitz said.
Southeast couldn't make up the deficit. The Redhawks stranded 12 runners compared to just five for the Panthers.
"Missed opportunities," Hogan said. "We stranded 12 guys. But Eastern Illinois' [pitching] staff had something to do with that."
Lynn (4-1) suffered his first loss of the season. He allowed seven runs, six earned, over 6 1/3 innings. The junior college transfer gave up eight hits and struck out eight while walking two.
"His start was outstanding," Hogan said. "He made two bad pitches. The home runs weren't cheap."
Southeast got strong bullpen work. Juco transfer Tony Zerrusen retired both batters he faced in the seventh inning, and juco transfer Michael Patman finished with scoreless eighth and ninth innings.
Lennington and sophomore left fielder Derek Gibson both went 3 for 5. Southeast outhit EIU 13-8. Heon and senior shortstop Kenton Parmley added two hits apiece. Senior catcher Jesse Tierney matched Lennington with two RBIs.
Moses went hitless but he did draw a walk to extend his school-record streak of reaching base safely to 78 games.