Wildcats Battle NCCU to Series-Opening Sweep in Durham
DURHAM, N.C. - Saturday’s series-opening doubleheader at Durham Athletic Park between the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (19-19, 11-6 MEAC) and the North Carolina Central Eagles (14-21, 9-7 MEAC) provided all the drama one would expect in a battle for the conference divisional leader position. And the Wildcats rose to the occasion, recording wins of 9-3 and 3-2 to earn the doubleheader sweep and move into the lead of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Southern division.
“We came out the first game and had a really great approach offensively,” Head Coach Jason Beverlin said. “We came up with some big hits. At the beginning of the second game, we kind of got away from that, then locked it back in and came up with some big hits when we needed them.”
“I thought the pitching all day was great. Although we didn’t have our best stuff, we made big pitches when we needed to and some guys came up big,” Beverlin added.
The Wildcats got on the board early in the doubleheader’s opening contest, as left fielder Eros Modena scored from second on third baseman Jordan Robinson’s RBI double down the third base line in the top of the second.
After stranding a pair of NCCU runners in the bottom half, the Wildcats followed up in a big way in the third, as first baseman Eric Sams reached as a hit batter and second baseman Matt Noble battled to a 10-pitch walk, both scoring on Austin Garcia’s single deep down the left field line, aided by an error by NCCU left fielder Bryant Battle. Garcia would score as well on a Modena sacrifice fly, touching the plate after catcher James Dey couldn’t hold onto the ball for the tag during a collision in the baseline. Josh Johnson capped the frame’s scoring, coming in from third on Zach Olszewski’s single to the shortstop, pushing the Wildcats ahead 5-0.
In the fourth, Garcia would put another on the board for the Wildcats, batting in Sams on an RBI line drive single into shallow left field. Noble made the B-CU advantage 7-0, scoring on Johnson’s sacrifice bunt.
In the bottom half, NCCU center fielder Kory Wood broke up starter Keith Zuniga’s shutout, capitalizing on a one-out single and another batter reaching on an infield error, bringing in the Eagles’ first score on an RBI single to left field. Right fielder Carlos Ortiz narrowed the B-CU advantage to four with a two-run double to the right field wall.
Behind Zuniga and reliever Christopher Waltermire, the Wildcats kept NCCU quiet for the remaining frames, re-establishing their lead in the sixth, first scoring Sams on another Garcia RBI single, with Noble capping the scoring on Johnson’s sacrifice fly, pushing the B-CU advantage out to 9-3.
Zuniga (5-3) earned the victory for the Wildcats, pitching five complete frames with one earned run allowed and three strikeouts. Waltermire pitched a career-high four innings, allowing no hits and no runs for his first save of the year; second of his career. For the Eagles, starter Kyle Shields (3-2) takes the loss, striking out one in three innings on the mound, allowing four earned runs.
At the plate in game one, Garcia topped the Wildcats with a 3-for-5 performance, batting in three runs and scoring one of his own. Johnson was 1-for-2 with two RBI and a run, while both Noble and Sams were 1-for-3 with three runs scored each.
While the hitters rose to the forefront of the first outing, the hurlers took lead in game two, as B-CU starter Montana Durapau and NCCU starter Terry McNabb each dealt six one-out, shutout innings into the final frame, when the hitters’ sense of urgency rose to the occasion.
In the seventh and final inning of regulation play, pinch hitter Jake Welch reached base as a hit batter with one out away and an 0-2 count. Stealing second and reaching third on a pickoff error by catcher Carter Williamson, Welch crossed the plate on a two-out Modena RBI double to right center field, putting the first Wildcats run on the board with just the second hit of the game. Modena went on to score and move the B-CU advantage to 2-0 on catcher Jose Carballo’s RBI single to shallow center.
However, the Eagles rose to the challenge as well. NCCU opened the bottom half with consecutive base hits from Battle and Christian Triplett, and Eric Kimber walked to load the bases. Second baseman Jake Kehagias got the Eagles on the board with a sacrifice fly to center field and pinch runner Malik Steward scored on Zack Lee’s RBI groundout, again bringing the game to a tie.
Coming out of the bullpen with two runners on, Donte Lindsay faced Ortiz, a fellow Cleveland, Ohio native. Although Ortiz battled to a six-pitch full count, Lindsay secured the looking strikeout to squash the NCCU momentum and send the game to extra innings.
“It was definitely one of my toughest situations,” Lindsay said. “Coach put me in for a lefty matchup situation and I was able to establish my slider.
In the eighth, Sams hit a crucial leadoff single to right center field and advanced on a Bryant Munoz sacrifice bunt. Taking on his second at-bat of the game, Welch was again key, bringing in Sams from second on a two-out single to left field, pushing the Wildcats ahead 3-2.
With one runner on in the bottom half, Lindsay yielded to Michael Austin, who showed calm resolve in dispatching the first two outs on a sac bunt and a fly to right field. With a runner in scoring position, Austin worked through pinch hitter Conrad Kovalcik’s patient approach, securing an eight-pitch looking strikeout to secure the 3-2 win and the opening day sweep.
“In that closing role, that’s my job,” Austin said. “I have to go in for tough situations and get outs. I just threw strikes and put myself in a good position. He [Kovalcik] battled back to get me 3-2, I threw a good fastball on the inside part of the plate, he didn’t swing at it, at that was strike three.”
Logging a third of an inning, Lindsay (1-1) earns the win for the Wildcats, while Austin logged his third save of the year. In his six innings, Durapau allowed only three hits and matched his season high with eight strikeouts. For the Eagles, McNabb (2-5) went the distance, pitching eight innings with six hits and eight strikeouts.
Welch finished 1-for-1 with the game-winning RBI and the first run scored of the game, while Modena and Carballo each recorded RBI.
With the two-win day for the Wildcats, they move into the driver’s seat of the MEAC Southern division, taking a one-and-a-half game lead on NCCU and Florida A&M, which split its series with Savannah State on Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla.
The Wildcats look to keep their distance in Sunday’s series finale at the Durham Athletic Park, with first pitch between the Eagles and Wildcats set for 1 p.m.