Baseball: Panthers win series, remain in postseason contention

Coming into last weekend, Pitt baseball sat in second-to-last place in the Coastal Division of the ACC.

But despite the team’s precarious position, with a record below .500 (19-23, 9-12 ACC), extending its season was still a possibility. The format of the league’s postseason tournament, which includes 10 of the 14 conference schools, makes this scenario possible. After the two division leaders, the eight other teams that will advance depend on their conference-winning percentages, regardless of what division they are in.

With this qualification process in mind, the team’s final nine ACC regular games, which began after taking a break for finals week and then travelling to Pine Bluff, Ark., for a nonconference series, are of the utmost importance.

The three teams the Panthers face in this final portion of its regular season schedule, Boston College, Maryland and Notre Dame, all face similar situations: occupying the bottom of the standings and trying to put together victories to be one of the last teams to make the field of the ACC Tournament, which begins in Greensboro, N. C., on May 20.

Boston College, the first of these opponents, hosted the Panthers over the weekend. Coming into the series, the Eagles had an 8-16 conference record.  

By Sunday evening, the Eagles had an additional win but, more importantly, two more losses. And while Pitt still occupied the sixth place spot in the division, it helped Pitt’s case for a trip south in a couple weeks. 

Game one: Boston College 3, Pitt 2 

The opening game had little offense, with neither team able to get a run across in the first three innings. 

The hosts scored first in the fourth inning, after the Panthers’ starting pitcher Rhys Aldenhoven gave up back-to-back singles. Leadoff batter Chris Shaw advanced into scoring position on a wild pitch to the second hitter, Michael Strem, and then continued to third when Strem singled. Two hits were all they needed, as Tom Bourdon flied out to center field allowing Shaw to make it home safely. 

Aldenhoven walked the next batter, then settled down, retiring three straight to keep the Eagles from adding to their advantage.

However, when Aldenhoven took the mound in the next inning, he again allowed the first two hitters to reach base, putting himself in a difficult position. Similar to the fourth inning, the first player singled and then advanced to third, this time after the next hitter doubled down the right field line. A strikeout somewhat solved the issue, but after loading the bases with an intentional walk to create the force out, Aldenhoven made way for Jon Danielczyk.

The 6-foot-4 redshirt senior with a side-arm delivery got the Panthers out of the jam by striking out the first batter he faced and getting the next to fly out.

The one-run deficit held for 2 1/2 innings. Neither team was able to find offense. 

Pitt began the top of the eighth with two straight outs, second baseman Matt Johnson grounding out and pinch-hitter Caleb Parry striking out swinging.

But then the Panthers broke out with Stephen Vranka doubling down the left field line and Boo Vazquez scoring him when he tripled to left-center to tie the game. Casey Roche then singled Vazquez home to take the lead. With Steven Shelinsky Jr. up, Roche stole second base, but it didn’t matter because Shelinsky struck out. 

That stranded runner and three others earlier in the game at varying points would come back to hurt Pitt.

In the bottom of the ninth, Boston College got the tying and potential game-winning run on the bases with the first two batters, who walked and singled. Hobie Harris, who had come in for Danielczyk to begin the eighth, got the lead runner out at third with a fielder’s choice force play. Joe Cronin singled to left to advance Blake Butera, score Gabriel Hernandez and tie the game. Shaw did the same on the next play, Butera coming around from second to win the game for the Eagles. 

“Today was a very frustrating loss, especially how we battled back to take the lead,” Pitt head coach Joe Jordano said. “We came up with two clutch hits in the eighth, but innings one through seven, we could not generate any offense … We are a better offensive team than this, and we need to pick up our offensive game heading down the stretch of the season.”

Game two: Pitt 5, Boston College 4

The Panthers jumped out to an early advantage in the first inning of the second game, thanks to Boston College mistakes.

Vranka walked to start the game, and A.J. Lardo got hit by a pitch next. Roche struck out swinging, but a successful double steal advanced both runners a base. Vazquez put the ball into play, and Vranka went home, scoring on a throwing error by the first baseman as Lardo followed. Vazquez took second in the confusion.

He would get no further, the next two batters going down.

The Eagles shrank the lead an inning later, when three straight singles allowed Tom Bourdon to score. They would leave three runners on base. 

They continued their offense the next time up: a single up the middle, a double to right field and a hit by pitch loaded the bases. Johnny Adams grounded out to the first baseman for a run. John Hennessy reached first on a fielding error by Dylan Wolsonovich, allowing Strem to score on the play.

Pitt responded immediately. After Andrew Chin walked the first two batters he faced, Johnson laid down a sacrifice bunt on the first pitch he saw that advanced the runners. Manny Pazos attempted to replicate that success with a bunt of his own and did so, scoring Wolsonovich. Parry advanced to third on the play but wouldn’t go any further. Vranka flied out the third out. 

The tie held for two frames. In the top of the sixth, again, Wolsonovich walked to start the inning. After a pitching change, he stole second. Johnson brought him home with a double down the right field line. Johnson would reach third on a wild pitch. Vranka was then hit by a pitch to put him on first, but was then caught stealing second to end the inning.

Boston College answered soon after. With two outs, a wild pitch by starting pitcher Joe Harvey advanced two runners into scoring position. Freshman T.J. Zeuch entered in relief, following the play. Zeuch threw a wild pitch of his own, which scored Hennessey from third. The next batter lined out to the shortstop to end the inning. 

The back-and-forth rhythm of the game would end in the top of the seventh with Pitt making the decisive move. To begin, Lardo was hit by a pitch for the second time on Saturday. Next, Roche singled to advance him into scoring position. 

Vazquez would move both runners up and reach base himself with a bunt. 

The Panthers couldn’t make much of the bases-loaded situation, but they did enough. Shelinsky flied out to centerfield, scoring Lardo the eventual winning run.

After having responded to Pitt’s offense with some of its own three times before, Boston College couldn’t manage a fourth and the game ended 5-4, Pitt. Zeuch got the win. 

“Today was a really well-played game. Coming off of yesterday’s loss, which was a tough one, I told our guys to keep battling, put ourselves in a good position and good things will happen,” head coach Jordano said. “We came up with some clutch hits and had that suicide squeeze. We took advantage of some opportunities that were presented.”

Game three: Pitt 15, Boston College 11

After two games of moderately offensive output, the final meeting of the series had an even stronger showing. 

Pitt fell behind early, due to a two-run homer by Shaw in the first inning. 

The gap grew with the Eagles’ next time at the plate.

The unrelenting power of Boston College resulted in five more runs and an early exit for starting pitcher Matt Wotherspoon. Sam Mersing would replace him. One more run would score before Pitt could escape. 

Once it did, however, it cancelled out the Eagles’ progress with six of its own. After leadoff singles, a Roche double down the left field line scored Vranka and moved Vazquez to third. A Shelinsky double to left field brought in two runners. A double by Eric Hess brought in Shelinsky. A pitching change hardly stopped the attack. A wild pitch scored Hess and a sac fly brought in Wolsonovich before Pazos struck out to end the onslaught. 

Having cut the deficit to two, Pitt continued its push an inning later. Four singles with a hit by pitch mixed in saw Pitt tie the game before any outs got recorded. Wolsonovich allowed Roche to score the go-ahead run when the Wolsonovich flied out to right field. Hess was caught advancing to second on the play, and the next batter flied out. 

The lead didn’t hold for long. Boston College pushed a run across when Adams singled home Shaw. A double play ended any chance at building momentum for the Eagles. 

Pitt jumped back ahead the next chance it got. Johnson reached base with a single and Vranka tripled two batters later to score him. A Vazquez double then sent Vranka home. 

Opposition fielding and pitching issues allowed Pitt to extend its lead beyond reach. Hess made it to first thanks to an error by the shortstop. Wolsonovich walked. A wild pitch meant that the runners moved up. Another walk loaded the bases and resulted in a pitching change, John Nicklas for Tyler Hinchliffe.

The offense continued: another walk, a run. A passed ball meant one more. A throwing error by the first baseman trying to get Johnson out at home added the third. And then a double by Roche scored two. 

By the time the Eagles recorded the final out of the half-inning, Pitt’s run total for the game had climbed to 16, its highest of the season.  

Boston College would chip away at the Panthers’ lead in the eighth, but only manage one run. 

Vranka, who finished with three hits, four runs scored and a RBI in five at bats, said the team tried not to dwell on the fact that it was down and by so many.  

“We just tried to stay up the entire game. We knew it was only the second inning and we had a long game ahead of us,” Vranka said. “We just kept the energy up and kept going and it really paid off for us.”

Pitt head coach Jordano gave the team a peptalk after Boston College jumped out its initial lead. 

“I pulled the team in and said, `Hey guys, this is going to be a long baseball game. All I want you to do is have great at bats and see where it takes us,’” Jordano said in a statement. “We then put up a six-spot and got right back into the game. We still made some mistakes, but that’s what Sundays are about; it’s a grind.” 

Ending the series in such a strong way left the players in high spirits.

“It feels great,” Vranka said. “You always love days like these. Where everybody’s scoring and everybody’s having a great time. It’s just great energy all around.”