Despite a late surge from a Butler offense that was dormant through the first six innings against Seton Hall starting pitcher Billy Layne Jr., the Pirates survived thanks to a clutch outing from closer Matt Leon to defeat the Bulldogs by a final score of 4-3 and advance to Championship Sunday for the first time since 2011.
Layne Jr. turned in six gritty innings in which the redshirt sophomore right-handed starter worked in and out of trouble to stymie a Butler offense that failed to capitalize on numerous scoring opportunities.
Seton Hall’s No. 3 starter found himself in some trouble right off the bat on Saturday afternoon, as he allowed Butler leadoff hitter Zach Jarosz and Tyler Houston to reach base. With the thick of Butler’s order coming up, Layne Jr. settled in and struck out the next two batters before Butler’s starting pitcher Garrett Christman flew out to right field to end the inning.
In the bottom of the inning, Seton Hall shortstop Al Molina cracked a 1-2 changeup from Christman over the right-center field fence for his fifth home run of the season and second of the tournament to give the Pirates an early 1-0 lead.
After working a clean top of the second inning, Layne Jr. found himself in trouble facing the top of Butler’s order once again. Layne Jr.’s control eluded him in the top of the third, as he hit two Butler batters and threw two wild pitches that loaded the bases for the Bulldogs with only one out. Again, Layne Jr. settled down and retired the next two batters to bring an end to the Butler scoring threat.
The top of Seton Hall’s order struck again in the bottom of the fourth inning, sparked by a leadoff single from third baseman Sebastian Santorelli. Following a strikeout from Molina, Santorelli stole second on the first pitch of senior catcher Mike Alescio’s at-bat. With a runner in scoring position, Alescio ripped a double down the third base line to drive home Santorelli and make it a 2-0 game.
The Pirates were not done there, as what would’ve been a sacrifice bunt from senior right fielder Ryan Ramiz turned into a run scored for the Pirates after the throw from Christman sailed out of play. Throughout the day, Butler was plagued by defensive mishaps, as the Bulldogs committed three errors due in large part to a defensive shakeup that had infielders playing out of position with Christman, normally the team’s third baseman, on the mound.
In need of a shutdown inning, Layne Jr. got into trouble once again in the top of the fifth, allowing a pair of two-out singles to give Butler runners on the corners. Once more, Layne Jr. picked up a strikeout to escape the jam. On the afternoon, Layne Jr. stranded eight Butler baserunners as the Bulldogs hit a measly 0-6 with runners in scoring position with Layne Jr. on the bump.
Small ball paved the way for Seton Hall to tack on another run in the bottom of the inning. Sophomore center fielder Tyler Shedler-McAvoy led off the inning with a walk before Del Castillo reached first on a throwing error from Butler’s third baseman. From there, senior second baseman Rob Dadona dropped down a bunt to advance Shedler-McAvoy and Del Castillo up a base before Butler’s defense succumbed to yet another throwing error that allowed Molina to reach first and Shedler-McAvoy to score.
After walking the tightrope all afternoon, Layne Jr. turned in his most dominant inning in the top of the sixth, striking out the side. The top of the sixth turned out to be Layne Jr.’s last of the day, as he finished with a final line of six innings pitched, nine strikeouts and only five hits allowed.
With Layne Jr. out of the game and lefty reliever Cory Sawyer on the mound to begin the top of the seventh inning, Butler’s offense finally woke up. Sawyer, who entered the day with a 1.75 ERA, gave up a leadoff home run to No. 9 hitter Connor Dall. Three batters later, Gehrig Parker pulled a Sawyer pitch over the right field wall for a two-run homer and Seton Hall’s lead was down to 4-3 in the blink of an eye.
Butler continued to rake following the home run, as shortstop Michael Hartnagel singled to get the tying run to the plate for the Bulldogs. With Christman at the plate, Sawyer dug in and struck out his counterpart with a curveball in the dirt and followed suit to the next batter, getting first baseman Andy Bennett looking at a fastball on the inside corner.
With Sawyer’s day done, Leon entered in the top of the eighth inning in search of his 12th save of the season and set down the Bulldogs in order. Seton Hall was unable to cash in on an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, though, as first baseman Matt Toke just got under one and flew out to the warning track to end the inning, stranding Molina on second base.
The top of Butler’s order continued to thrive in the ninth, as Jarosz and Houston once again reached base to start the inning. With the dangerous Parker at the plate, Leon induced a groundball to Dadona, who teamed up with Molina to roll two and put the Pirates one out away from victory. With a runner on third still looming, Leon bore down and induced a game-ending popup to left field, which Del Castillo squeezed to secure the win for Seton Hall.
Now, Seton Hall’s focus shifts to No. 1 seed St. John’s on Championship Sunday, where the Pirates will have to defeat the Johnnies twice in order to secure an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. First pitch is scheduled for 1 P.M. EST and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 2.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.