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College Baseball: Catawba wins SAC opener

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Catawba junior Chance Bowden is known as a doubles guy, a gap-to-gap hitter who doesn’t launch the ball over the fence very often.

But Bowden got one in his wheelhouse on Friday night at Newman Park, and his three-run homer in the third inning — he crushed it past the light pole in straightaway left — turned around Catawba’s South Atlantic Conference opener against Carson-Newman.

Bowden’s prodigious blast instantly transformed a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead, and the Indians were on their way to a 10-7 victory.

“The first time through the lineup, their right-hander (Tennesee Tech transfer Will Gardner) hadn’t thrown an off-speed pitch,” Bowden said. “So I went up to the plate planning to stay late on a fastball. But I  got a pitch inside, and I had a good reaction to it.”

The homer was Bowden’s second of the young season and the 12th of his college career. Later in the game, he whacked a double, the 51st of his career. The school record is the 69 doubles stroked by Blair Reynolds from 2000-03. Bowden, who had a single-season school record of 31 two-baggers in 2016, might challenge the career mark by the end of this season.

Bowden’s shot helped make a winner of lefty Russ Weiker, who is very close to completing his comeback from the elbow stress fracture that derailed his 2016 season after he’d won eight games.

“I felt great out there,” Weiker said. “I checked the roster and saw that I was the long relief guy today, and I was ready. I threw more pitches than I expected to, but not problems.”

He threw 89, most of them good ones. Catawba was in mess when Weiker entered the game in the second inning. When he exited in the seventh and was hugged by everyone in sight, Catawba was in control, 8-4.

“Weiker was the difference in the game,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “It was ugly at times, but  somehow we came out on top. Carson-Newman is a good team. They make you better. They always expose your weaknesses and they always fight to the end.”

Weiker was needed so early because Catawba starter Michael Elwell couldn’t find his signature pitch, his curveball. Elwell’s third pitch left the yard, smashed over the wall by Carson-Newman’s All-SAC leadoff man Ryan Addington.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Elwell not have his curveball,” Gantt said. “But Addington is a great player. When it seems like a guy has been around 10 years, that’s when you know he’s a great player.”

Carson-Newman added three singles in the first, smacking fastballs, and it was 2-0. When the Carson-Newman second began with a single and a walk, Gantt went to the bullpen. Clay Young got an out on a bunt. Then with Addington strolling back to the dish, Weiker got the call. With the help of  a diving catch by Malachi Hanes in center field, Weiker limited the damage, but the Indians trailed 3-0.

It stayed that way until the bottom of the third. Zac Almond sent a two-out rocket off the wall to score Jeremy Simpson, and Catawba was on the board. After Nick Coble walked, Bowden connected with his three-run homer for a 4-3 lead.

Carson-Newman (6-7, 0-1) got a run in the top of the fifth for a 4-all tie. Catawba went back on top with two in the bottom half. Coble’s RBI single through the left side put the Indians ahead, 5-4. Then Catawba stole a run when Kyle Smith swiped third base and dashed home when the throw sailed high.

Simpson’s triple, just out of reach of a diving right fielder, keyed a two-run Catawba sixth for an 8-4 lead.

Hanes banged into the wall to make a grab on a long drive leading off the sixth, and Gantt inched to the edge of the dugout. With two men on in the seventh, Gantt figured Weiker had done enough. Heath Mitchem came in and surrendered a three-run homer by DH Greg Jones on a curveball that stayed up. Now it was 8-7, and Catawba was sweating again.

Catawba got an insurance run in the seventh that was set up by  Bowden’s opposite-field double. Almond smashed an RBI double in the eighth to make it 10-7.

Relievers Cody Fitch and Connor Johnson got key outs — Johnson retired Addington with a beautiful curveball for strike three — and provided the bridge to reliable closer Bryan Blanton, who sealed a hard-earned victory.

“When their leadoff man hit a home run, I was thinking, ‘Well, here we go again,'” Bowden said. “But our bullpen did a great job, and seeing Weiker throw as well as he did was a boost for everyone.”

Catawba will send Coble and Hunter Shepherd to the mound today for a doubleheader against Carson-Newman that will start at 1 p.m.

Carson-Newman    210   010   300  — 7  10  4

Catawba                  004   022   11x  — 10  12  0

HR — Addington (4), Jones (4),  Bowden (2).

W — Weiker (1-0). L — Gardner (1-1). S — Blanton (2).

 

 

 

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