The USC Aiken baseball team is on a roll. Ranked sixth in the nation in the latest Collegiate Baseball Newspaper NCAA Division II Poll, the Pacers are coming off a dominating sweep of Shepherd, where they outscored the Rams 21-3.
USCA has swept two of its three-game series this season, capturing all three. Winners of five games in a row, USCA will open its Peach Belt Conference schedule today by welcoming Francis Marion (4-3) to Roberto Hernandez Stadium for another three-game series.
“They’re our rivals, but I feel like every Peach Belt team is our rival,” said head coach Kenny Thomas, who is just five victories shy of 1,000 in his career. Although he can’t hit the milestone this weekend, Thomas said his players are fired up. “They’ve been ready to go since the start of the week.”
The three-game set was originally supposed to start Friday, but the threat of bad weather forced an adjustment with the first game scheduled to be played today at 4 p.m. The series will now close with a doubleheader on Sunday, with the first game of the twinbill scheduled to start at 1 p.m.
As he has through the first three series this season, Thomas will stick with Ryan Milewski, Derek Beasley and Wyatt Brown as his weekend starters. There’s no reason to deviate from that set up, with Milewski set to take the hill today. He’s 1-1 with a 0.60 ERA in 15 innings pitched, recording 11 strikeouts. Beasley’s 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA and 16 strikeouts, second on the team to Brown. The right-handed senior has recorded 18 punchouts to go along with his 2-0 record and unblemished 0.00 ERA.
Those three set the tone, but the Pacers’ bullpen has been just as impressive, with only a slip up in the series opener against Carson-Newman costing them a victory. Since then, the pitching has been dominant and timely hitting from Bryce Baur (.432, 1 home run, 8 RBIs), Ben Donath (.435 7 RBIs), Ryan Metzler (.323, 6 RBIs, 8 runs) and Bill Gerstenslager (.412, 6 RBIs, 9 runs) among others has helped propel the lineup.
They’ll face a good challenge from Francis Marion. The Patriots are led by CSRA native Jeffrey Stoner, who’s 1-0 with a 1.62 ERA and 21 strikeouts and just one walk in 162/3 innings this season. He’s already been named PBC Pitcher of the Week once this season. Gary Ashcraft (1-1, 3.27 ERA, 14 strikeouts) and Chris Harrison (1-0, 1.23 ERA) have also made starts for Francis Marion this season, as well as Don Sandifer (1-1, 6.30 ERA, 15 strikeouts) and North Augusta grad Trevor Hutto (7.36 ERA), but the latter two have struggled.
Pitching hasn’t been as much of an issue for the Patriots as scoring runs. Michael Wilson (.360, 8 runs), Jarrod Reed (.357, 7 RBIs, 5 runs) and Stephen Tarkenton (.346, 6 RBIs) are all capable and threats to do damage if given the opportunity, but the Francis Marion batting order hasn’t been consistent enough to date.
It will be interesting to see Thomas match strategy with Patriots head coach Art Inabinet. Francis Marion’s skipper picked up a milestone win earlier this season when he got win No. 500 and Thomas admits the proximity of the colleges has them competing in the offseason, when they often recruit the same players. Inabinet’s roster includes several players from the Midlands, including South Aiken alum Dalton Gress, a junior outfielder.
If form holds, Thomas should hold the upper hand after the first PBC series of the season and move that much closer to his historic win total.
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.