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Pitt baseball finishes season with two losses vs. Duke

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Senior Matt Johnson (5) started his final game as a Pitt Panther on Sunday. Ian Flanagan | Contributing Editor

Senior Matt Johnson (5) started his final game as a Pitt Panther on Sunday. Ian Flanagan | Contributing Editor

Senior Matt Johnson (5) started his final game as a Pitt Panther on Sunday. Ian Flanagan | Contributing Editor

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

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Although the Pitt baseball team didn’t achieve the goal it set at the beginning of the year, the 2016 season as a whole can be viewed as a successful one.

The Panthers (25-26 overall, 10-18 ACC) remained in ACC Tournament contention until the final weekend after being picked to finish dead last before the season. But their goal was to make the tournament, and they came up just short of that after running into a gauntlet at the end of their schedule.

“I think that when you evaluate the season from a big picture, you have to look at what the expectation was going in,” Pitt head coach Joe Jordano said. “We did a lot of good things this year. We beat a lot of good teams, and we had a couple of head-scratching losses.”

After a disappointing 11-6 home loss against Penn State, Pitt put up a tremendous effort in Coral Gables, Florida, against the No. 4 Miami Hurricanes. The Panthers had a chance to win every game, but were unable to steal a win from one of the best teams in the country.

Pitt then came home with its sights set on sneaking into the ACC Tournament, but a couple of the hottest teams in the nation stood in its way.

The rival West Virginia Mountaineers came into town riding a nine-game winning streak, and made it 10 in a row with a 10-4 victory at Charles L. Cost Field.

Then, in their final series of the regular season, the Panthers hosted the Duke Blue Devils. Duke came in after winning 7 of its last 8 games, including two out of three at the No. 6 Florida State Seminoles.

Pitt needed to win at least 2 out of 3 games against the Blue Devils in order to make the tournament, but its chances took a big hit after a heart-wrenching loss in game one on Thursday night.

Junior T.J. Zeuch took the mound as a Pitt Panther for the final time on Thursday. Pitt’s ace has been projected by Baseball America as a potential first-round pick in next month’s MLB Draft.

“I told my coach when I was throwing my bullpen on Monday or Tuesday, that I wanna go out with a bang,” Zeuch said. “I think I accomplished that.”

Zeuch didn’t get the win, but his last start as a Panther was a memorable one.

After six scoreless innings in a heated pitchers’ duel, Pitt junior Nick Yarnall opened the scoring with his team-leading 11th home run of the season in the bottom of the seventh off Duke senior Kellen Urbon.

Zeuch hurled eight innings of shutout ball before surrendering his first run with two outs in the top of the ninth, tying the game at one.

The Blue Devils then scored the game-winning run off first-year pitcher/outfielder Yaya Chentouf on cleanup hitter Justin Bellinger’s RBI single in the top of the 10th.

Zeuch finished with one run allowed on eight hits and two walks with 12 strikeouts in nine innings of work in the 2-1 loss. In 10 starts this season, the towering righty posted a 6-1 record with a 3.10 earned run average, 74 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 69 ⅔ innings pitched.

“He’s a special kid,” Jordano said about Zeuch. “You don’t get to coach those guys that often, and when you do, it’s pretty good.”

The Panthers still had a chance to make the ACC tournament going into game two on Friday night, but they were eliminated from contention when their comeback attempt fell short in a 7-5 loss.

It was still a memorable night at Cost Field, as the teams partnered with the Josh Gibson Foundation to honor the Pittsburgh-area Negro League ballclubs by donning the hats of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

Wearing Crawfords caps, Duke jumped out to an early lead when Bellinger blasted a solo homer to left to lead off the second inning. In the third, the Blue Devils struck for five more runs to blow the game open.

Duke added another run in the top of the fifth on sophomore Jack Labosky’s solo home run to take a 7-0 lead, but Pitt began chipping away in the bottom half.

Sophomore Frank Maldonado tripled to left-center, then came home on junior Jacob Wright’s RBI groundout to get the Panthers on the board. The Panthers then tacked on three more in the bottom of the seventh to cut the deficit to three.

In the bottom of the ninth, sophomore Charles LeBlanc and senior Alex Kowalczyk made it a two-run game with back-to-back doubles. Yarnall’s walk put the tying run on base, but the Blue Devils held on for the 7-5 win.

The season finale was originally scheduled for an 11 a.m. start on Sunday, but the game was pushed back an hour because of weather concerns.

The senior day game began at 12:07, but after four innings of playing through a light mist, the clouds opened up and heavy rain forced a delay before the game was cancelled. The score was tied 1-1 at the time of the stoppage.

Pitt’s senior right-hander Aaron Sandefur had retired eight batters in a row when the game was called. Despite not having a chance to end his college career with a win, Sandefur was pleased with how he performed in his last time wearing a Pitt jersey.

“I think I was feeling pretty good,” Sandefur said. “It would have been fun to keep playing.”

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Pitt baseball finishes season with two losses vs. Duke