Jackets sweep Radford in season opener

Photo courtesy of Tyler Parker Student Publications

Baseball finally came back to the Flats this year — and it did not disappoint.

The Jackets opened their season at MacNease Ballpark in a three-game series against the Radford Highlanders hoping to answer questions. They brought in pitching coach Matt Taylor to overhaul the ACC’s second-worst rotation by earned run average (ERA) and strikeouts while incorporating transfer additions at pivotal spots in the outfield and at shortstop. However, the early returns look promising — the Jackets hit Radford around the park in Friday’s 21-8 blowout and cruised to 7-3 and 6-3 wins on Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

Stalwart junior closer Terry Busse got the ball to start the season opener. Tech head coach Danny Hall clearly wanted to see if Busse could extend to starter innings, but Radford jumped all over him. Highlanders junior outfielder Cameron Pittman singled on Busse’s first pitch and after three walks, two singles and a big-time two-RBI (runs batted in) double, Pittman lined out to mercifully end a 6-0 run by Radford at the top of the first inning.

Fortunately, Tech’s new-look batting lineup came through. Freshman outfielder Drew Burress — and the former top high school player in Georgia — got things rolling in chaotic fashion after the ball got away from Radford junior pitcher Scott Rouse and he made it to first base.Burress then scored the Jackets’ first run of the season after senior catcher Matthew Ellis sent a 108 mph double into center field. The experience in Tech’s lineup continued to show as the senior trio of left-fielder Trey Yunger, outfielder/designated hitter Bobby Zmarzlark and second baseman Mike Bechetti all produced in their first career plate appearances as Jackets. Yunger and Bechetti singled while Zmarzlark forced a walk through good plate discipline. Overall, Tech forced four walks in the inning, allowing them to score five runs on Ellis’s double and two singles from Yunger and Bechetti. 

Senior pitcher Ben King — the Jackets’ 2023 leader in ERA — stabilized the rotation by getting three outs on only two batters after an ill-advised steal attempt from Radford graduate student infielder Zack Whitacre. Unfortunately, Radford freshman pitcher Trey Ludy kept the Jackets off the board. King forced a particularly impressive strikeout on a six-pitch battle with Highlanders junior outfielder Corbin Grantham to blank Radford in the third. From there, Bechetti homered at the bottom of the third to even the score at 6-6 before Burress hit a homer of his own to give the Jackets the lead. 

The Jackets drove in three runs off the bats of a 2-RBI homer from senior first baseman/pitcher Cam Jones, double from senior third baseman John Giesler and single from Zmarzlark. They ended the inning with a commanding 10-6 lead and never relinquished it. 

When Radford capitalized on command issues from King to make it 10-8, Tech racked up insurance runs. Burress hit his second homer of the day, a bomb to right field, to make it 11-8 while junior shortstop Payton Green collected his third hit of the game. Tech freshman pitcher Tate McKee came in to replace King in the fourth inning and held Radford to zero runs in his two innings, mitigating a scoreless inning for the Jackets’ batting order. The defense collected three quick outs off of Radford at the top of the sixth and Tech sealed the game in the sixth and seventh innings. Across two innings, Tech scored nine runs on five hits as the Radford bullpen had no answers for their bats. They ended the seventh frame with a 20-8 lead and put in pinch hitters for the rest of the game. Excitingly, freshman catcher Vahn Lackey hit an eighth-inning home run in his first career at-bat and got swarmed by his teammates in the locker room after Tech’s program record-setting 21 Opening-Day runs to Radford’s eight. Yunger, Green and Burress all had monster performances at the plate, each collecting four hits or multiple homers. 

Tech’s bats stayed hot on Saturday in a lower-scoring, but more complete game on both ends. Junior right-handed pitcher Aeden Finateri took the mound for Tech and shoved across six innings of work. He only conceded one run and four hits on a career-high eight strikeouts, giving a depleted Jackets bullpen some rest and seeing only three batters in four of his six frames. At the plate, Tech took a three-run lead in the first inning largely due to command issues from the Radford starting pitcher, sophomore Dylan Howard, and scoring singles from Green and Zmarzlark. Green tacked on an insurance solo home run to get the lead back to three following an RBI double from Radford grad student infielder Conner Butler, but Finatieri’s pitching kept the Highlanders at arm’s length. On a single from Ellis, sophomore outfielder Parker Brosius scored the fifth run of the game. 

Tech iced the game in the seventh in just two plays — a timely RBI double from Burress before Zmarzlak forced freshman pitcher Mason Self to walk him with the bases loaded. In relief of Finatieri, Jones salted away the 7-3 series-clinching win in the top of the ninth through a pristine two-strikeout appearance. 

For the series sweep, Tech gave senior pitcher Mason Patel the starting nod and Radford tagged him early for three runs, hitting a right-field single to score Butler in the first and two-RBI double in the third courtesy of redshirt junior catcher Drew Biggerstaff. 

This coincided with a dormant stretch from Tech’s offense through three innings and it looked like Radford was going to stop the sweep. Fortunately, Green quieted any worries with one swing of his bat – a four-run RBI homer to deep left field that gave Tech the 4-3 lead. Junior pitcher Camron Hill then came in and held the Highlanders off the scoreboard for the fourth and fifth innings, giving Tech time to add insurance runs through a triple and score from Giesler and Burress’s third homer of the series. 

Hill handed the game over to redshirt freshman pitcher Carson Ballard, who carved up the Highlanders’ bats across a scoreless, hitless four innings. The Jackets recorded their first sweep of the season in the 6-3 win. 

Tech answered those pre-season questions on both the plate and the mound, starting the 2024 season off in dominant fashion. 

They will travel to Allen E. Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, GA. to take on the local rival Georgia Southern Eagles before returning home to take on Cornell in a weekend series slated to be held in Atlanta.