GREENSBORO, N.C. – Western Carolina entered the weekend as the preseason favorite in the Southern Conference, but it was the UNCG baseball team that won the SoCon opening series between the schools thanks to a 7-4 victory Sunday afternoon at the UNCG Baseball Stadium.
The Spartans improve to 9-12 overall and 2-1 in league play while the Catamounts drop to 9-11 and 1-2. The series win over WCU was the first for UNCG since the Spartans swept the Catamounts in Greensboro during the 2011 campaign. The Blue and Gold also won its opening SoCon series for the second-straight season.
UNCG is now 7-2 at home this season and is hitting .332 with a slugging mark of .586 and 14 home runs.
The bottom three batters in the Spartan lineup went 5-for-10 in the contest with a run scored a two RBI. Senior outfielder Tyler Long, freshman infielder Tripp Shelton and senior infielder Aaron Wright recorded two hits apiece while Wright added a run scored and three RBI. Senior infielder Hunter King chipped in with two runs scored. With a double to lead off the bottom of the first, senior outfielder Zac MacAneney extended his current hitting streak to 11 contests.
Freshman RHP Michael Bates came up big with perhaps his best outing in his young career. He tossed 4.1 innings and gave up just one run on four hits with two strikeouts before turning things over the bullpen. Senior LHP Blair Betts was credited with the victory and improved to 1-1 after throwing 2.2 effective innings. He allowed two runs on four hits with no walks and four strikeouts. Brendan Nail, a Greensboro native, was saddled with the loss as he dropped to 1-2. He surrendered five runs on five hits in just 2.2 innings pitched with three walks and two strikeouts. Junior LHP Bryant Stafford picked up his first save in a UNCG uniform as he threw the final 1.1 innings and held Western Carolina scoreless. He struck out three, including the final two batters of the game, and walked just one.
With a runner in scoring position and two away in the top of the first, Bates induced a lineout to short from Danny Bermudez to hold the Catamounts off of the board. The UNCG offense went to work quickly in the bottom of the frame as MacAneney muscled a double to the gap in center. He then stole third and King drew a walk to put runners on the corners. Junior infielder Collin Woody plated MacAneney with a sac fly before Wright clubbed his fourth home run of the season to left center to extend the Spartan lead to 3-0. After a double by senior outfielder Eric Kalbfleisch, sophomore catcher Jake Kusz drew a walk. Long then poked a ball in the hole between first and second for an infield single that scored Kalbfleisch and left the Blue and Gold with a 4-0 cushion after just an inning.
Kusz added to the Spartan lead in the bottom of the third as he hit a sharp line drive single to left that plated junior Jake Hall from second after Hall had reached on a fielder’s choice and advanced to second on a groundout. Western responded with its first run in the top of the fourth via a Jason Smith RBI double, but UNCG plated a pair of runs in the bottom of the inning on RBI singles by King and Wright to give the Spartans a 7-1 advantage heading to the fifth.
Western Carolina scored two runs in the top of the sixth off of three-straight doubles to pull within 7-3 before Betts induced a groundout and fanned Spencer Holcomb to limit the damage. Betts would bounce back with a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the seventh to keep the Catamounts at bay.
With UNCG leading the game by a 7-3 count in the top of the eighth, a throwing error allowed leadoff hitter Bermudez to reach second base. He would score on a RBI single by Reece Strong to make it a three-run contest. Stafford came on with two outs and runners at first and second and came up with a huge strikeout to get out of the inning. He would finish the job in the top of the ninth, setting Western down in order to seal the win.
The Spartans return to action Tuesday, taking on crosstown rival North Carolina A&T in downtown Greensboro at NewBridge Bank Park. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Admission is free of charge but fans will need a ticket for entry.
Keep up with the UNCG baseball team all season by logging on to www.uncgspartans.com and following the Spartans’ official Twitter feeds @UNCGBaseball/@uncgsports.