Panthers rebound, sweep No. 20 Clemson in weather-shortened weekend series


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt senior pitcher Matt Gilbertson (45) pitches during Friday’s game against Clemson.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

While the forecast looked grim, the Panthers (12-10 overall, 3-5 ACC) were able to get out of their early-season slump with a shortened home series sweep versus No. 20 Clemson (16-7 overall, 1-4 ACC).

Inconsistencies have haunted the Panthers this season as they came into the weekend having lost six of their last eight. The Panthers found themselves sitting at 10-10, looking toward a tough bout against the No. 20 Tigers, who were 16-5 coming into Friday’s game one.

On top of this, the weather changed the structure of the series. Originally, the series was scheduled for three games over Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Snowstorms throughout Pittsburgh moved games one and two to a Friday afternoon doubleheader, and game three was canceled altogether.

Despite the weather and the slump, coach Mike Bell was confident in the Panthers’ game plan.

“To me, whether you win six out of eight, or lose six out of eight, we attack the game plan versus an ACC opponent no differently,” Bell said. “We can only control what we can control.”

And control they did. The Panthers won game one 8-0, and completed the sweep in a 10-7 game two on Friday.

Senior right-handed pitcher Matt Gilbertson had a stellar performance in game one, going seven scoreless innings and striking out nine batters. Gilbertson continued on what is a streak of two quality starts in a row.

“[Gilbertson’s] just been executing,” Bell said. “He’s done a great job at giving us quality starts, and we trust him so we pitch to his strengths.”

The pitching staff as a whole improved mightily from their performances at Virginia Tech last weekend, where they gave up 32 runs in three games. They struck out 31 batters on Friday while only walking five in 18 innings. Senior relief pitcher Baron Stuart anchored the Panther bullpen, pitching two innings of relief in both games and earning the save in game two.

Stuart’s second save of the season came at an opportune time, as it halted the Tigers’ furious comeback attempt. Game two saw the Panthers up 9-1 through six, thanks to a dominant start by sophomore righty Logan Evans. Evans struck out nine batters in five innings while only allowing one earned run.

But the Tigers soon woke up, scoring six runs combined in the seventh and eighth innings to bring the game within two runs. Stuart came in and struck out five of the last six batters to punctuate an impressive day for him.

While it wasn’t a perfect day for the Panther staff, it was good enough to get them a crucial sweep against a ranked ACC opponent. Bell was proud of his group.

“Clemson is a very aggressive offense and a very good team,” Bell said. “But we did a great job at keeping them off balance.”

Offensively, the Panthers got contributions from up and down the lineup in both games. Junior outfielder Kyle Hess tallied a series-high six hits and two doubles along with two RBIs. Sophomore outfielder CJ Funk walked four times to go along with two hits to reach base six times. Junior infielder Sky Duff extended his on-base streak to 43 games. In all, the Panthers posted 28 hits versus Clemson.

The power surge for the Panthers also continued, as they hit five long balls throughout the two-game series. Junior infielder Brock Franks got out of his recent rut by hitting his first home run since March 9 — a single shot to right field in the bottom of the fourth in game one. Meanwhile, junior designated hitter Jack Anderson hit a homer to deep right-center in the third inning of game two, putting the Panthers up 6-1.

The other homers came from the stars of the series, Ron Washington Jr. and Bryce Hulett. Washington hit a home run in each game, and also tallied two doubles and four runs over both games.

Hulett has hit well all season and continued this against the Tigers. Hulett leads the Panthers in OPS and average, and hit a no-doubt two-run shot over the right-field wall in game two to continue his impressive start. Hulett only tallied three home runs in 43 games last season, but already has five in 22 games this year. As far as preparation goes, not much has changed.

“Bryce takes what the opponent gives him,” Bell said. “He hasn’t changed who he is and he takes things one at-bat at a time.”

Sometimes, the Panthers look like the dominant team that they were on Friday, and in wins over High Point and Bucknell. Other times, against better competition, the Panthers have outings such as games two and three in the Virginia Tech series that make fans question whether they are even the same team. For Bell, though, inconsistencies are part of baseball.

“I think this is what baseball is,” Bell said. “Anyone can beat anyone on any given day, but when we do the little things right we can win any game.”

But in a tough ACC, where eight out of 14 teams are ranked in the top 25 of all of college baseball, the Panthers have to find some consistency. But Bell seems up for the challenge.

“We know we’re gonna have some challenges along the course of the rest of the season,” Bell said. “But if we keep grinding and continue to control what we can control, we’ll be fine.”

The Panthers will head to Happy Valley and play Tuesday night against in-state rival Penn State at 6 p.m.