Apr. 18—JACKSONVILLE — When Alex Howard arrived at the ballpark Sunday morning, Jacksonville State coach Jana McGinnis thought she looked tired and sleepy.
McGinnis joked that she wasn't sure Howard was ready to play.
If Howard really was sleepy, that all changed in the bottom of the seventh inning when JSU trailed Eastern Illinois by a run and somebody told Howard to grab a bat and go pinch-hit.
Howard drove a 2-0 pitch just beyond the center fielder's reach, two baserunners scored, and JSU celebrated a 7-6 home win by mobbing Howard in the middle of the diamond.
"When she gets a bat in her hand, she wakes up," McGinnis laughed afterward.
The win gave JSU (16-19, 14-9) a sweep of the three-game series with Eastern Illinois (19-15, 11-10). After losing 16 of their first 21 games this season, the Gamecocks have rebounded in a big way. They've won 10 of their last 12 league games and have climbed to fourth in the standings, which is important. EIU dropped from fourth before the series to sixth place.
Because of the pandemic, only the top four will advance to the conference tournament, instead of eight as in the past.
"This is not the end of the season," McGinnis said afterward, referring to 11 more games left on the schedule. "The end for us when the last regular-season game is over, because we've got to fight, and we've got to claw. We're just trying to pull ourselves back up and pull as many people down as we can along the way. I told the girls that there's no more days off. You've got to come to work every day."
And, Howard has done that. As a freshman, she had a hard time early in the season breaking into the lineup, but McGinnis has found she's exceptionally valuable as a late-inning pinch-hitter.
"Coach always tells us that when we get opportunities, be big in those moments," said Howard, an Oxford High graduate. "Obviously, I want to have a good at-bat. I'm a pinch-hitter; I only see a pitcher once. My main goal is to have a good at-bat — being productive, whether that's an RBI, a walk, whatever."
In her last 14 appearances as a pinch-hitter, she is 5-for-12 with a double, two home runs, a walk, a sacrifice fly and nine RBIs. This is her third game-winning pinch-hit. It's the second that ended the game in the bottom of the last inning.
"Alex Howard owns that pinch-hitting role," McGinnis said. "I might say she owns that role probably better than anybody in college softball right now. She embraces. She accepts it. I know she wants to be an everyday player, but right now, that's not what our team needs the most. Alex is going to get her day, but right now, what we need out of her is exactly what she's doing."
McGinnis nearly used her in the bottom of the sixth when JSU trailed 4-3, but the Gamecocks squeaked out a run without her. Lauren Hunt and Keeli Bobbitt opened with back-to-back singles. Savannah Sudduth's sacrifice bunt moved them up, and Shelby Newsome's long flyout to left scored Hunt.
In the top of the seventh, EIU went ahead 6-4 on Hannah Cravens' two-out, two-run double. It could've been a larger margin than two runs, but Bobbitt, the center fielder, threw out a runner at home to get the third out.
In the bottom of the inning, JSU wasted no time rallying. Alexus Jimmerson opened with a single, and Ellie Largen pinch-ran for her. Karsen Mosley doubled home Largen, and Megan Fortner walked. Howard originally was set to pinch-hit for Chaney Phillips, but as she was approaching the plate, JSU's coaches called her back and sent Phillips up instead. Phillips bunted to move the runners to second and third, and then Howard got her chance, with Mosley on third and pinch-runner Sidney Wagnon on second.
Howard said she knew what pitch was coming and had no doubt when she struck the line drive to center field.
"I knew it was going to get the job done," she said.
What to know
—Of JSU's 35 games, 16 have been decided by either team scoring in the last inning. JSU has lost nine in which the opposing team scored on its last at-bat, but the Gamecocks have won seven on their last at-bat, including four with at least one run in the bottom of the last inning.
—Jimmerson went 2-for-4 with a homer and a single. She's gotten at least one extra-base hit in her last 10 games. She's 19-for-35 in that stretch with five doubles, six homers and 13 RBIs. She also got the pitching win Sunday when she worked the final two innings of the victory.
—Jada Terry was 1-for-3 with an RBI. She now has 100 career hits.
—Karsen Mosley was 2-for-4 after going 0-for-6 in the previous day's doubleheader sweep of EIU. Shelby Newsome was 1-for-2 with an RBI. For the series, she was 7-for-10 with six RBIs. Bobbitt was 3-for-3 on Sunday and was 5-for-9 in the series.
—McGinnis on the change in Howard's approach at the plate this season: "I see her growing. She's calm. She's confident in the box. Early in the season, I felt she was jittery, nervous, anxious, but not now. She's maturing into a Division I hitter."
—McGinnis on how the team accepts Howard: "Her teammates love her. There's not one player who doesn't have the utmost respect for her and believes in her. They believe in her because of her commitment to working. She's up here when nobody else is."
—McGinnis on Mosley's big seventh-inning double after struggling all series: "I think she shut her brain off. I told her after she was 0-for-2 that the biggest at-bat is ahead of you. The at-bat that matters is the next one. Right before that hit, I told her she was a great hitter. She just needs to keep believing she's a great hitter. She's a tough out when she doesn't get herself out."
—JSU will travel to Tennessee Tech for a doubleheader Tuesday at 3 p.m. The Gamecocks swept two from Tech in Jacksonville earlier this season.
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.