After winning its first three games of the season, the USC Aiken baseball team suffered its first loss last Friday in the first game of a series against Carson-Newman. The Pacers responded with back-to-back shutout wins, improving their record to 5-1 on the season.
That’s an impressive start, even for a team that’s ranked fifth in the nation. The Pacers are winning with pitching. They have three shutouts in their past four games and have another win when they didn’t surrender an earned run. Head coach Kenny Thomas said USCA would have strong pitching this season, but his hurlers have exceeded expectations to this point. Everyone’s but the Pacer skipper’s. Thomas said he want his pitchers to shut down the opposition every inning of every game.
“I want them to go out and get those zeroes,” Thomas said Thursday, on the eve of this weekend’s three-game series against Shepherd. “I tell them I don’t care if we have a 50-run lead, I want them to get us another zero.”
For the most part, they’ve obliged. From the starters to the long relievers to the “Sic ’ems,” his end-of-game relievers, the Pacer pitchers have been dominant. Thomas is looking for that trend to continue this weekend against the Rams, who will play at Roberto Hernandez Stadium for the first time. The opening game of the series is today at 4 p.m., with 1 p.m. starts scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
While USCA’s performing at the high level anticipated, Shepherd’s looking to get off to a good start as the alma mater of Pacer head assistant coach Jason Walck will open its season.
Shepherd will try to find a way to defend its WVIAC Tournament crown after losing NCAA Division II National Player of the Year Nate Minnich to graduation. The Rams return a solid core of players, including first-team all-conference pitcher Paul Hvozdovic. The staff ace went 10-4 with two saves and a 2.57 ERA in 20 appearances last season. The Shepherd workhorse whiffed 81 batters and walked just 19 in 108.1 innings of work.
The Rams also bring back second-team all-league performer Chad Murphy. The senior catcher will bat in the middle of the order after hitting .351 with a .503 slugging percentage and a .487 on-base percentage a year ago. Murphy banged out 60 hits and drove in 43 runs while scoring 40 more.
Shepherd has a big pitching staff, not in numbers but height. It features a pair of righties, Brian Martin (6-foot-7) and Josh McCauley (6-4) who strike an imposing figure on the mound. But they’ll have their work cut out for them going against as USCA lineup that has exceeded expectations. That’s especially true of the players at the bottom of the batting order who have helped the Pacers post 38 runs in six games.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.