College Baseball: Indians lose game and series to Newberry

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 29, 2016

SALISBURY — It’s too early to be worried about Catawba baseball, but there was frustration at Newman Park on Sunday and there was a concerned expression on the face of coach Jim Gantt.
Catawba lost to Newberry, 9-7, in a South Atlantic Conference game that lasted 10 innings. It was the sort of tense, chess-match struggle the Indians always seem to pull out of the fire.
Except this time, they didn’t. Newberry (13-4-1, 2-1) out-executed the Indians (6-6, 1-2) late and took not only the game, but the weekend series.
“Catawba is good every year, they’re very hard to beat, and they’re especially hard to beat here,” Newberry coach Russell Triplett said. “It’s early, but absolutely, this was a big series for us to get.”
Catawba trailed after the first inning in all three weekend games. On Sunday, the hole was 4-0 after JoJo Bradley and Daymon Totherow belted early homers off Catawba lefty Connor Johnson. Totherow’s three-run shot to right-center came with two men out.
Catawba trailed 5-1 going to the fourth, but Will Albertson led off with his fifth homer of the young season, a blistering liner that easily cleared the left-field wall.
Newberry shortstop Robert Kosch made the key defensive play of the game later in the fourth, using a headlong dive to turn a smash up the middle by Zac Almond into a double play. Chance Bowden’s double down the left-field line cut Newberry’s lead to 5-3, but the play by Kosch prevented the Indians from putting together a monster inning.
“We’d put ourselves in bad position with defensive mistakes and pitching mistakes that gave them too many baserunners,” Gantt said. “But then we did a good job of fighting back.”
Catawba got good pitching from Will Beeson, who kept the Wolves off the scoreboard in the third, fourth and fifth.
Catawba kept surging when Jake Kimble, a transfer from Liberty, hit one over the right-field wall with Jeremy Simpson on base in the bottom of the fifth. Kimble’s opposite-field blow just kept going and going and tied the game at 5-all.
Catcher Jeff Sneed smacked a solo homer off Beeson to start the Newberry sixth. The Wolves went back in front 6-5, but that’s when Michael Elwell entered the game for the Indians and started mowing down hitters.
Then Kimble struck again in the seventh. With Luke Setzer on base, he stroked his second two-run homer of the afternoon to dead center, and Catawba led 7-6.
“You can’t beat that feeling when that ball keeps going up, especially when you’re behind and a homer gets you back in the game,” Kimble said. “We competed today. Guys didn’t give up, and that’s what it’s going to take for us to win ballgames.”
Catawba had rallied twice, and Elwell was looking sharp on the mound. Victory appeared almost a sure thing, but the Indians never got to take a victory lap.
With that 7-6 lead, Gantt ordinarily would’ve handed the ball to closer Bryan Blanton to start the ninth inning, but there were factors to consider. First, Elwell had been great. Second, Elwell is a southpaw and Blanton is a righty, and Gantt had a healthy respect for the left-handed pinch-hitters Newberry had waiting on the bench if he made the move to Blanton.
Elwell fell behind Nolan Schrenker 3-0 to start the ninth, and then walked him on a 3-2 pitch. Then Kosch was struck by a pitch.
The call to the bullpen for Blanton came with two men on and no outs. He did his job, but Newberry still scratched for the tying run with a sacrifice bunt (Blanton had to make a good play to get the out at first) and a sacrifice fly to left by Trejon Smith that tied the game at 7-all.
“We executed well at the plate late in the game,” Triplett said.
Albertson, who is batting .444 and has a .545 on-base percentage, strolled to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the bases empty and two men out. Triplett wasn’t taking any chances with a walk-off homer and ordered an intentional pass.
“He’s probably the best hitter in the country,” Triplett explained. “We’ve got all the respect in the world for Albertson. There are times that you go ahead and pitch to him, but with the game and the series on the line, we weren’t going to let him decide it with one swing.”
When Newberry reliever Cody Ezzell struck out pinch-hitter Kyle Smith, the game went to the 10th.
Then Newberry got two runs in the 10th.
Leading off the 10th, Michael Gonzalez was ruled to have been hit on the hand by a pitch. He appeared to be swinging when the ball struck him, and Gantt came out of the dugout twice to argue.
First, he requested that the plate umpire ask for help, and he did so. After the call stood, Gantt’s second trip was to express dismay.
Derek Olenchuk, who had walloped three homers in the series opener, then hammered a pitch that struck Blanton so hard it ricocheted into foul territory. That gave Newberry two men on with none out. Avery Bowles relieved Blanton, who would be saddled with a hard-luck loss.
Again the Wolves executed. A sacrifice bunt by Sneed set up two runs. Gonzalez scored on a wild pitch to make it 8-7. Olenchuk was plated by a sac fly for a 9-7 lead.
Catawba went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 10th, with the only noise coming on another futile argument after Bowden was hit by a pitch but wasn’t awarded first base.
Bowden rolled away from the pitch exactly as he’d been taught to do, but he was ruled to have extended his leg into the pitch. A disbelieving Gantt protested the call rather forcefully, although he wasn’t ejected.
It all added up to a difficult-to-take loss.
“We just haven’t got a rhythm going yet because of the rainouts,” Bowden said. “But Kimble brought us some life today with those homers. We’re going to be fine.”
Kimble agreed with that assessment.
“We’ve gotten off to a lot of bad starts, and that’s hurt us,” he said. “But guys are making adjustments. We’ll start clicking soon.”
NOTES: Sean Grant, expected to be one of Catawba’s three weekend starters, is sidelined with an elbow injury. Grant (1-1) was off to a good start with a 1.93 ERA…. Catawba has belted 17 homers but is batting only .253. … Kimble had been hitting under .200 before he broke out on Sunday. … The boxscore is in Scoreboard.