Pitt baseball opens season, goes 3-1 in Florida


Ron Sherman (18) takes a swing at a pitch in a game last year. Pitt New File Photo

By Steve Rotstein / Staff Writer

The Pitt baseball team started its 2016 season at the Historic Dodgertown Classic in Vero Beach, Florida, with an offensive explosion against Niagara University but lagged behind for the weekend’s main event against Ohio State.

During the tied season opener Friday night, cleanup hitter Alex Kowalczyk calmly stepped up to the plate with two runners on base in the bottom of the first inning and blasted a three-run home run, setting the pace for the rest of the night.

Kowalczyk gave Pitt a 4-1 lead, which the team maintained to win the game 19-10. Pitt followed up that win the next day with a solid all-around performance in a 7-2 win against Toledo. Hoping to go three for three, the Panthers faced off against Ohio State but couldn’t maintain the energy, falling to the Buckeyes 11-8. Pitt picked up another 5-4 win against Niagara on Sunday to round off the weekend, leaving the tournament with a 3-1 record.

Niagara got the scoring started on Friday evening, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning on a double and an RBI single. This would be the Purple Eagles’ only lead of the night.

Junior Jacob Wright got Pitt’s season started with a walk, before sophomore Charles LeBlanc was hit by a pitch. Freshman David Yanni then drove Wright home with a single for Pitt’s first run of the season, tying the game 1-1 in the bottom of the first inning. Kowalczyk followed with Pitt’s first home run of the season.

Niagara fought back in the top of the second inning, tying the game with a pair of home runs, but the Eagles were already out of the game by the end of the inning.

Senior Ron Sherman’s three-run home run highlighted Pitt’s game-breaking, eight-run second inning, leaving the Panthers with a 12-4 lead. After Yanni put the game away for good with his own three-run home run, Pitt tacked on three more to take a 19-4 lead in the sixth, then held on to win 19-10.

Sherman and junior Caleb Parry came out on fire for day two of the Historic Dodgertown Classic Saturday morning. Both went 3-for-3 with two runs scored in the first game of the day, a 7-2 win against Toledo. Sherman had two doubles and a triple, while Parry had three runs batted in on two singles and a solo home run.

The Rockets took a 1-0 lead with an RBI double in the top of the second inning, but Pitt tied it in the bottom of the inning when Sherman tripled down the left field line and Parry brought him home with an RBI single.

The Panthers added a run in the bottom of the third to take a 2-1 lead, then Parry led off the fourth inning with a home run. Toledo came back to within one run in the fifth inning, but Parry singled home Sherman again in the bottom of the sixth to extend Pitt’s lead to 4-2.

Starting pitcher Sam Mersing brought in the win for the Panthers, allowing only one earned run on four hits and one walk while striking out seven over five and one-third innings. Senior Garrett Wrambel was nearly perfect in relief, giving up just one hit over the final three and two-thirds innings to close out the 7-2 win.

In the main event of the Historic Dodgertown Classic against Ohio State on Saturday night, the Panthers came just three outs away from making a successful opening weekend an exemplary one.

Starting pitcher Aaron Sandefur retired the first 10 Ohio State batters he faced, allowing only one unearned run on one hit. Coach Joe Jordano, returning for his 19th season, took him out of the game after the fifth inning, however, and Ohio State scored three runs off relievers Josh Falk and Josh Mitchell.

Hoping to limit the damage, sophomore reliever Isaac Mattson came in and stranded a runner on third base as Ohio State led 4-2, but the game was far from over for the resilient Panthers.

Pitt tallied four runs in the bottom half of the inning, using RBI singles from senior Matt Johnson, Wright and Kowalczyk to regain the lead, 6-4. Johnson led the team with four hits in the game.

After a solo home run by Ohio State in the top of the seventh inning, Pitt was still clinging to a 6-5 lead to start the ninth, only three outs from a victory. Ohio State fought back to regain an 8-6 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning after a leadoff double, two singles and a sacrifice fly.

Sherman, up to the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out, was still looking for his first hit of the game. He delivered, smacking a game-tying triple to left-center field.

Sherman’s luck ran out as Ohio shortstop Craig Nennig threw him out at home on a fielder’s choice in the next at-bat, and the Panthers were unable to bring home the winning run. After three scoreless innings for both teams, Ohio State put up another three-run inning. Pitt couldn’t put together one more comeback this time, losing 11-8 in 13 innings.

Pitt’s final game of the tournament was a rematch with Niagara on Sunday morning, which became a much more competitive game than the opener. Niagara came out looking for revenge, again jumping out to an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning.

Pitt regained the lead with back-to-back RBI doubles from Parry and Schnurbusch in the bottom of the fourth inning. But Niagara would not go away quietly, striking right back with a bases-clearing double to take a 4-2 lead in the top of the fifth before Falk came in to record the last out.

As was the case all weekend, Pitt came storming back in the bottom half of the inning to take back the lead 5-4, with the help of a two-run double from Schnurbusch. That was all the offense Pitt needed with Falk on the mound, as the junior reliever completely shut down Niagara’s bats the rest of the way.

Falk tossed four and a third shutout innings in relief, allowing only one hit and three walks while striking out seven and preserving a one-run lead. He finally gave up a double in the top of the ninth inning, but stranded the tying run on third base to save the 5-4 win and cap off a successful opening weekend for the Panthers.

Pitt’s next game is 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, at Grambling State and is the first of a three-game series.

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