Texas A&M head baseball coach Rob Childress said he doesn’t often attempt to predict home runs, but Tuesday he put in a call as senior Jonathan Ducoff stood in the box with two outs in the bottom of the eighth.
Little did he know at the time, Ducoff would be called upon twice to ensure the Aggies take their SEC tournament opener against 11th-seeded Florida 8-7 at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
With two outs in the eighth and the Aggies (37-19-1) trailing 5-4, Ducoff worked a full count before turning on the 10th pitch of the at-bat. He immediately began celebrating as the ball sailed into the left field visitor’s bullpen for a three-run homer and 7-5 lead.
“I felt like in that moment there in the eighth inning that he was going to run into one, and I actually called it,” Childress said. “I don’t call them very often, but I called that one right there.”
After Florida rallied in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 7, Ducoff was called upon again in the bottom of the 10th. This time he singled to left-center to drive in Cam Blake from second base for the game-winning run.
“I think that there is no doubt about it, this is the most special moment of my career,” Ducoff said.
Ducoff came to College Station after four seasons at Baylor and Houston Baptist as just a graduate student looking to gain a master’s degree in finance. The baseball itch arose quickly, and Ducoff reached out to Childress, who added him as a walk-on. Over the last year and a half, the fifth-year senior has undergone treatments for follicular lymphoma and has been in remission since April 2018.
In his short time in Aggieland, Ducoff has collected 23 RBIs in 32 games. Tuesday’s walk-off single was his fourth game-winning RBI of the season, including another walk-off hit against Vanderbilt on March 16.
“He’s a special kid and an inspiration to our team, and I’m thankful that he’s with us, whether he got two hits today that were very important or he was 0-fer,” Childress said. “He’s very important to our team, and we’re lucky to be around him.”
A&M scored first, plating three runs in the bottom of the third, one off an RBI single by catcher Mikey Hoehner.
Aggie sophomore pitcher Asa Lacy, working on nine days rest after a four-game suspension, rolled through the first four innings, allowing just one hit. Through the fifth and two outs of the sixth, Lacy (7-4) issued three hits and four walks, resulting in three runs for the Gators (33-24) as they tied the game at 3.
“I thought I was good early,” Lacy said. “I kind of lost the command a bit late, and that’s where they tagged some runs on, and you’ve got to give them credit. That’s a good team.”
The Gators took a 5-3 lead in the top of the eighth off A&M reliever Bryce Miller.
Childress elected to go with closer Kasey Kalich in the ninth, who allowed two runs on a double, triple and a single as Florida tied the game at 7.
“I didn’t want those guys going 10 days without throwing again,” Childress said of his bullpen. “I wanted those guys to be in the game in those moments. Had we not had a lead in the top of the ninth, Kalich was going out, if it was tied or we were down a run, just to keep it close, just so he was out there in that moment.”
Kalich (2-1) retired Florida in order in the top of the 10th and earned the win. A&M designated hitter Blake walked with one out in the bottom of the 10th then took second on Ty Condel’s groundout, setting the table for Ducoff’s walk-off swing.
“I think that from what I’ve been through over the last year and a half, I never thought this is where I would be,” Ducoff said. “I would call you crazy if you would have said that, but God is good, and he’s faithful, and this is a really awesome thing for me.”
The Aggies advance into the double-elimination portion of the tournament and will face sixth-ranked Georgia (42-14) at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Florida (33-24), which is considered a bubble team for the NCAA tournament, will have to wait until Monday to see if it makes the 64-team field.
The Bulldogs will send junior right-hander Tim Elliott (6-3, 2.93 ERA) to the mound Wednesday against Aggie freshman lefty Chris Weber (4-1, 3.34).
Childress said he hopes Tuesday’s win bolsters the Aggies’ resume to host an NCAA tournament regional. The Aggies are 14th in the RPI.
“You look at our numbers and our RPI and whatnot, and you hope and wish, but you really want to just take it out of everyone else’s hands and just play well, and that’s the message to the team,” Childress said.
NOTES — With 12 strikeouts Tuesday, A&M’s pitchers set a new single-season record for team strikeouts with 614. The previous record of 612 was set by the 2010 staff. ... A&M is now 12-7 at the SEC tournament.