By SIMON BRADY
Spartan baseball traveled to Greenville, Tennessee to take on the Tusculum Pioneers in this past weekend’s series. This unique out of conference matchup marks the first time the Spartans traveled outside of Florida for a series this season.
The Spartans dropped two of three games to Tusculum, but salvaged the series with a 7-4 victory in game three. Following the series, the Spartans have an impressive 24-10 record, including going 10-2 in conference, good enough to be atop the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) standings with 15 games remaining in the regular season.
In game one of the series, Friday night April 7, the Spartans suffered one of their more heartbreaking defeats of the season. Up on the Pioneers 3-2 and heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, the Spartans blew their lead, giving up four runs in the frame. The explosive eighth inning would make the difference for the Pioneers as a scoreless Spartans’ ninth inning secured the Tusculum victory, 6-3.
Junior third baseman Darren Miller highlighted the day for the Tampa offense, in four plate appearances Miller had two hits and two runs batted in. Junior right-handed pitcher David Lebron took the mound for the Spartans in game one, giving up just two earned runs in 6.2 innings. He also totaled eight strikeouts in the outing.
In game two, a hard fought defensive battle, the Spartans fell in similar disappointing fashion 3-2. On back to back days the Pioneers got their go ahead and eventual game winning run in the bottom of the eighth.
Senior infielders J.D Osborne and Laz Rivera drove in the two runs for the Spartans, Rivera with an RBI single in the top of the first, and Osborne with a solo homerun to left field in the top of the eighth.
Junior left-handed pitcher Christian Calleja had a successful outing on the bump for the Spartans, giving up just one earned run in six innings, and striking out three batters.
The Spartans bounced back in game three, taking the final game of the series 7-4. The Spartan offense got out to a fast start, as four of the seven Spartan runs came in the first two innings. Miller had another outstanding day at the plate going 3-5 with a solo and two run home run. Senior shortstop Kevin Santa also had two runs on that day.
The bullpen was superb for the Spartans in game 3. Relief pitchers freshman Colton Widdows and juniors Cheyne Bickel and Garrett Cave combined to give up zero earned runs to the Pioneers in the final 5.2 innings.
Widdows was the winning pitcher for the Spartans, as he improves to 5-0 in his young career. Bickel totaled a stellar six strikeouts in just 2.2 innings of work, and Cave picked up his first save of the season.
Spartan senior catcher Chris Gaffney spoke on the disappointing series, as the team held themselves to far higher standards heading into the series. “We were pretty upset with ourselves knowing we should’ve left with a sweep,” said Gaffney.
Having said that, Gaffney and the Spartans understand that dwelling on this tough series won’t do them any favors as they look forward and the focus shifts to finishing the regular season strong. “We all said it’s time to move on, to learn from the weekend and get hot going into playoffs,” said Gaffney.
Head coach Joe Urso also reflected on the series, expressing frustration in his team playing out of character in games one and two when it mattered most. “Losing the first two games in the late innings was an even bigger disappointment than usual because this is when we normally play our best,” said Urso.
Urso pointed out the missed opportunity in playing a highly regarded regional opponent on the road. “We knew these were big regional games on the road that would have a big impact on our regional ranking, so it’s a huge disappointment,” said Urso.
Following the series, Urso understands his team has a long way to go in order to reach their most important goals. “We learned a lot this weekend about what it takes to win against great teams,” said Urso. “We will need to improve in many areas if we expect to make our normal championship run.”
The Spartans are now 3-3 in the all time series with Tusculum. Play resumes tomorrow night for the Spartans as they clash with conference foe Lynn in this weekends home series.