Jackets win four against Lipscomb and Ga. Southern

It’s been a banner opening weekend for the baseball team’s 2009 season. Sophomore Thomas Nichols capped it off with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday, while the Jackets swept a three-game set against Lipscomb and split a midweek series against Georgia Southern.

Against Lipscomb, Tech rolled to a pair of easy victories in the first two games, winning 9-0 on Friday and 13-3 on Saturday, before having to fend off the visiting Bisons in Sunday’s 5-3 contest. The Jackets stumbled in the first game against Georgia Southern, falling 6-5 on Tuesday, but they recovered the next day to pull out a 5-3 victory.

If opening day was any indication for the Jackets, the team is more than capable of living up to its No. 12 preseason national ranking.

Friday’s game saw a pitcher’s duel for four innings, but in the fifth inning Tech’s offense came to life. After junior first baseman Tony Plagman reached base on an error and eventually scored on a well-placed squeeze bunt by senior left fielder Chris House, sophomore center fielder and leadoff man Jeff Rowland hit his first home run of the year to give Tech a 3-0 lead. Tech added two more runs in the sixth, and sophomore shortstop Derek Dietrich hit a grand slam in the seventh.

Nine runs were more than enough for Tech sophomore pitcher Deck McGuire, who looked sharp despite never having made a weekend start before. The right-handed sophomore shut down the Lipscomb lineup for seven innings, striking out a career-high 13 hitters in that span and surrendering only three hits and one walk. He was forced to leave after throwing 101 pitches, but his performance still earned him ACC Pitcher of the Week. Nichols took over for McGuire in the eighth; late-inning relief is one of many roles the versatile Nichols will see this season, and he performed well, throwing a perfect inning and recording a strikeout.

“You get the best of both worlds, coming in and pitching [too]. Hopefully I can do well for us down the stretch…I pitched in high school a lot, so it won’t be my first time being on the mound in tight situations,” Nichols said.

In the ninth, freshman closer Mark Pope made his first appearance in a Tech uniform, throwing a perfect frame of his own to complete the 9-0 victory.

Saturday’s game saw the Jackets’ offense put up even bigger numbers while cruising to a second victory. Lipscomb drew first blood on an Allen Bolden home run in the top of the first, but Tech tied the game in the bottom of the second on freshman third baseman Matt Skole’s first home run. One inning later, the Jackets took a large lead as two walks, two hit batsmen and two errors helped them put together a six-run inning and force Lipscomb starter Brandon McClurg out of the game. The offense continued to roll, adding five more runs over the next two innings, and the Jackets coasted to a 13-3 victory.

Skole and Rowland had three hits apiece to power the offense, and senior right fielder Luke Murton added two hits and two RBI. Junior second baseman Patrick Long went 1-1 with three walks, and through two games he was 2-2 with two doubles and seven walks for a perfect on-base percentage of 1.000. Also of note was that backup catcher Cole Leonida started the game; the usual catcher, senior Jason Haniger, started on Friday but sat the rest of the weekend in order to rest a minor injury.

As for pitching, Tech junior starter Zach Von Tersch struggled a bit, allowing three runs on six hits and a walk in five innings, but he did strike out five. After he left, four relievers threw a scoreless inning each—right-hander Jacob Esch and left-handers Jed Bradley, Zach Brewster and Jake Davies, all of whom are freshmen except the sophomore Brewster.

“I wanted to get some of those young guys in a situation where there wasn’t a lot of pressure on them,” Head Coach Danny Hall said.

In Sunday’s contest, Hall did not have the luxury of a pressure-free environment, as the Bisons kept the game close the entire way.

Sophomore starter Brandon Cumpton was shaky early on; after striking out the first two batters on six pitches, he loaded the bases in the first inning before escaping the jam, and he allowed a run in the second.

Tech responded quickly, though. Skole led off the bottom of the second with a double, and Nichols singled him in to tie the game. After a pair of outs, consecutive walks by Rowland, Long and Dietrich that brought in a second run, and a single by Murton immediately afterward, Tech had a 3-1 lead.

Cumpton allowed just one run over the next four innings. Junior Andrew Robinson pitched a scoreless seventh, and sophomore Kevin Jacob got the first two outs in the eighth before Pope came in to finish off the inning. Pope came out for the ninth and looked strong, but with two outs and a man on second, Long—who had moved to third base after Hall pinch-ran for Skole—made a stop, but his throw sailed wide of junior first baseman Tony Plagman and allowed the tying run to score. With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Murton singled to lead off, and freshman Evan Martin pinch-ran for him. A groundout and an aggressive hit-and-run call moved Martin to third, but it would not matter; the next batter was Nichols, who launched a Kyle Tognazzini pitch over the right field fence to give Tech a 5-3 victory.

The team was jubilant after the game, but they were also careful not to get too excited. “I think this is just a small portion of a great season ahead…. It’s a lot of fun celebrating now, but I’ve got to put it behind me and get ready for Georgia Southern,” Nichols said.

In the series at Georgia Southern, Tech midweek starters Robinson and Jacob faced two of the Eagles’ best, Matt Murray and Jake Brown. “I fully expected them to throw good pitchers at us… I think they set their schedule so they could do that,” Hall said of the Eagles’ plan to line up their better pitchers for the series.

Robinson made the first start of his Tech career two days after pitching an inning in relief. The junior will likely see time in both roles this year, and his first start was solid, though not spectacular. In six innings pitched, Robinson allowed four runs on seven hits and two walks, but he struck out seven hitters and kept Tech in the game. With the score tied 4-4 after six innings, Dietrich drove in a run to give Tech the lead, but Nichols gave up a two-run single to Eagles third baseman A.J. Wirnsberger in the bottom half. The Jackets could not muster any offense against closer Dexter Bobo in the final two innings, so Georgia Southern took Tuesday’s game 6-5 to hand Tech its first loss of the season.

Wednesday’s game saw Jacob, another first-time starter, take the mound for Tech. The pitcher received plenty of early run support, as Haniger drove in two runs on a first-inning single and Skole hit a two-run homer in the third. Jacob actually allowed a run in the bottom half of each of those innings, but he was able to end the threat quickly both times. In the first, he allowed Eagles leadoff man Matt Miller to work his way around for a run off of two singles and a sacrifice fly, but he got a quick fly-ball out afterwards and Rowland recorded an outfield assist to end the inning. In the third, he allowed a one-out RBI single before striking out two batters in a row.

Jacob left in the seventh inning after a solid performance; in 6.2 innings, he gave up three runs (two earned) on nine hits and struck out four. Brewster came in to get the final out in that inning, and Pope closed out the game with two shutout innings, earning the save and preserving the 5-3 victory.

At 4-1, Tech will return home for a three-game set against Rutgers this weekend, and the ACC schedule will begin one week from Friday when Maryland comes to Russ Chandler Stadium.