CULLOWHEE-On the weekend of March 28th, Western Carolina’s men’s baseball team took two of three from UNC-Greensboro to earn their first Southern Conference series victory of the season at Childress Field/Hennon Stadium.
A controversial call from the first base umpire saw senior Blake Murphy only eligible to play in two of the three games, because he was ejected in the bottom of the eighth inning of game two for arguing and slamming his helmet. Due to SoCon rules, Murphy was forced to sit out game three stating that if a player is ejected then they must miss the following game.
In game one, the Catamounts cruised to an easy 17-2 victory over the Spartans, earning their first SoCon victory of the season. This was their third straight win since opening the SoCon season with three losses to Georgia Southern.
Western Carolina was led by junior J.C. Lyons at the plate. Lyons went 4-for-6 with eight RBIs and two homeruns. In the bottom of the third inning the Marietta, Georgia native blasted a grand slam over the left field wall, beginning the onslaught for the Catamounts with five runs in the inning. His two homeruns gave him the season lead with nine on the year.
Sophomore Brent Greer and Nick Liles also had a good night at the plate for Western Carolina. Greer was 4-for-5 at the plate with three runs, and Liles was 4-for-6 at bat and also scored three runs for the Catamounts.
“It’s huge,” Murphy said. “We got the win over ETSU earlier in the week and the way we played in that game was a huge spark for us. I think it really got us going and obviously we are rolling right now.”
Starting pitcher Drew Saberhagen struck out six and allowed just two runs on two hits in eight innings of work to earn his first victory of the season and improving his overall record to 1-3.
“Saberhagen really set the tone for us and I think we rallied from that,” Catamount head coach Bobby Moranda said. “He went out there and just battled and made some big pitches when he needed to early and let our offense get into the game.”
Reliever Geoff Turner came on in the ninth for Saberhagen and threw a hitless and runless inning to give the Cats their third straight win.
Game two on Saturday March 29th was a completely different story as the Spartans rebounded from the tough loss the night before and defeated Western 7-3. Four runs in the top of the fourth and two runs in the fifth contributed to UNC-G’s victory.
Murphy, who went 2-for-4 at the plate and stole his ninth base of the season, had an opportunity to load the bases with two outs. He hit a ground ball towards second and the umpire ruled him out on the throw to first, ending the inning and ending any possible chance of a late Catamount rally.
He got up and argued the call with the first base umpire and threw his helmet on the ground, which forced him to be ejected from the ballgame. Moranda came out and argued the call as well.
“I thought it was a quick trigger,” explained Moranda, “but I cannot really talk about umpires. I obviously wanted to defend my guy. It was just one of those things, I guess.”
Starting pitcher Tyler Sexton fell to 0-4 on the mound for the Catamounts as he gave up five runs on eight hits through four innings.
Base running errors, and batting mistakes led to the demise of the Catamounts in game two. In the bottom of the second inning, senior Barrett Shaft stole second, freshman Ryan Mathews walked, and sophomore Dylan de Graaf singled to left field.
Instead of stopping at first, de Graaf tried to move to second, forcing Mathews to try and advance to third, and was thrown out. Senior Barrett Shaft tried stealing home and was thrown out as well; triggering a double play and ending the inning with no runs after having the bases loaded.
“This game was just one of those games that we kept making mistakes over and over and over again. Give UNC-G credit for making the adjustments in this game, and the bottom line for our team is that we did not play a smart game today,” said Moranda.
Trailing 5-1 in game three, the Catamounts scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth, four runs in the seventh, and two more in the eighth to rally for the 9-5 victory improving to 10-15 overall and moving to 2-4 in the SoCon.
Moranda was proud of the way his team responded without two of their key weapons in Murphy and J.C. Lyons, who broke his hand after game two.
“That was a huge win for us. We needed a series win in the league and we got it. Our three-hole hitter (Murphy) was suspended, our four-hole hitter (J.C. Lyons) was out with a broken hand, so for our guys to step up despite that adversity makes me proud,” said Moranda. “I am really proud of the way we fought especially when we were trailing 5-1. We battled back and won the game.”
Sophomore relief pitcher Chris Masters was credited with the win after keeping the Spartans hitless in five innings of work. Masters moves to 2-2 on the season after striking out three and walking four batters.
In the eighth inning, sophomore Tyler Kirkpatrick hit a booming homerun over the centerfield wall. It was his seventh homer of the season, and it put the Catamounts up 8-5. Shaft hit an RBI single to score Nick Liles for the final scoring output of the game for the Cats.
“We had two guys out of the lineup and that is just an opportunity for someone else to step up and that’s what happened today. Tyler’s homerun in the eighth was big, it was kind of a dagger to our opponent and it put us up by three, so it was good to see that from our other guys,” said Moranda.
The Catamounts earned their first SoCon victories of the season, and have won three straight games since losing to Georgia Southern in the series opener. At this point, they are currently on pace to finish the same way they finished last season: SoCon Regular Season Champions.