No. 6 USC AIKEN 7, No. 25 CATAWBA 6

By NOAH FEIT


nfeit@aikenstandard.com


It wasn’t the prettiest game the USC Aiken baseball team has played this season, but the Pacers did enough good things Tuesday for a 7-6 win over Catawba. Playing their first midweek series of the season, sixth-ranked USCA (14-2) had more positive plays than mistakes to knock off No. 25 Catawba (13-5).


The Pacers used five pitchers to get the win, and most were very effective. But there were a few bad spots that a very good-hitting Indians squad capitalized on.


The defense made some tremendous plays but also booted a few balls to give Catawba extra opportunities to score. Even the offense, which produced early and often and ensured the Pacers led throughout, had a mix up that cost it a chance to score more runs.


“We were good at times and not good at others,” said USCA head coach Kenny Thomas, who was honored after the game for getting the 1,000th win of his coaching career on Saturday. Win 1,001 had its ups and downs. “It was a weird game. We go out and get the lead, then they come back. The pitching wasn’t bad but wasn’t as good as it can be. The defense wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as it can be. … You have to fight through that and win the game; that’s what we did.”


Making his first start of the season, Taylor Peed can be forgiven for some inconsistency. He gave up three runs – two earned – on five hits and a walk in four innings of work. But after a slightly shaky start, Peed was rock solid in the third and fourth inning, at which time Thomas said he originally planned to remove the right-handed junior.


But Peed looked so good, gaining control of his curveball and displaying good location on his fastball, that Thomas let him go out to start the fifth and try to qualify for the win with the Pacers leading 5-1. Peed didn’t record an out and was lifted after surrendering a two-run home run to Catawba’s Keaton Hawks, the second long ball he surrendered on the afternoon.


“Peed kept getting stronger, so I sent him out in the fifth. I shouldn’t have done that,” Thomas reflected. “He pitched well.”


Tyler Stephan (2-0) relieved Peed and tossed two scoreless innings to pick up the win. He was aided by a couple of spectacular fielding plays in the sixth inning, when third baseman JJ Loker, shortstop Sean Miller and second baseman Ryan Metzler all recorded assists on slick plays that they got to rock-solid first baseman Ty Barkell in time for the putout.


The defense wasn’t as good in the ninth, when Taylor Grover was trying to complete a five-out save. He gave up an unearned run because of a bobbled ball by defensive replacement Ben Donath. But Grover didn’t let the miscue prevent him from nailing down his fifth save of the season, stranding the potential game-tying run at second base when Catawba’s Craig Brooks popped out to USCA catcher John Fidanza in foul territory.


The Pacers were able to overcome the inconsistent pitching and defense primarily because of a productive day at the plate. They scored twice in the first inning and led the rest of the game. Barkell had a great day at the dish, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs and a run scored. He had an RBI single in the first inning off Cameron Cockman (2-2) and blasted a line-drive home run over the left-field wall in the third inning to give the Pacers their largest lead of the day, 5-1.


“Barkell had some big hits,” Thomas said, as his team racked up big numbers against Cockman, scoring six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. “We had 14 hits; you can’t fuss about that.”


When Barkell went deep, he knocked in Bill Gerstenslager who also had a big game in spite of putting very few balls in play. The hulking designated hitter went 1-for-2 with two walks – both leading off innings – and scored three times. He also had an RBI in the first inning when his groundout drove home leadoff hitter Branden Millhouse (2-for-5).


The Pacers manufactured a run in the second inning, when Metzler drew a leadoff walk, was sacrificed to second and advanced to third on a single by Miller. He scored on a delay steal after Miller took off for second and was thrown out as Catawba catcher Jon Wallace threw through. That throw opened the door for Metzler to easily score. Metzler and Loker added RBI singles in the fifth and seventh innings respectively to provide the winning margin.


Metzler did make a baserunning mistake in the fifth, when he was caught in a rundown, straying too far off second base. Instead of having the bases loaded with one out, the Pacers had first and third with two outs and couldn’t drive in another run that frame. But the offense scored enough, and the pitching staff did a good job of keeping Paul Kronenfield (0-for-4), Chris Dula (3-for-4, one run) and Julio Zubillaga (1-for-5) – the Indians’ dangerous 3-4-5 hitters – from hurting them.


“They did a good job with them,” Indians head coach Jim Gantt said. “The biggest key was the men Zubillaga left on base. He left six on base, and he’s usually a very clutch hitter.”


“It was total balance,” said Thomas, who will send Zach Hayden (0-0, 18.00 ERA in one inning pitched) to the hill today to go for the series sweep, facing Catawba’s Michael Trombino (0-0, 3.00 ERA). “He hasn’t pitched much, but we’ve got a lot of bullpen, that’s no secret. We’re going to try and use it.”


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.