Yarnall powers Pitt to weekend sweep over Grambling State

By Steve Rotstein / Staff Writer

Nick Yarnall hit baseballs so hard this weekend that he might have to check his aluminum bat for dents. 

The junior led off the top of the third inning for the Panthers Friday afternoon with a solo blast to center field. But his weekend was just getting started, as he would tee off on five home runs over the three-contest span.

The Pitt baseball team has started the 2016 season strong, and, thanks to Yarnall’s searing bat, they continued their hot-hitting ways with a three-game sweep of Grambling State over the weekend, outscoring the Tigers 48-17 during the series.

The Panthers’ offense energized the team Friday with a three-run second inning. Senior Ron Sherman scored on an error, then sophomore Charles LeBlanc brought home two more with a single to give Pitt the early 3-0 lead.

Yarnall’s home run led off the top of the third, then Pitt added three more runs in the inning on an RBI single by sophomore Frank Maldonado and RBI doubles by senior Aaron Schnurbusch and junior Caleb Parry.

Just as the Panthers were about to break the game open, Grambling State showed signs of life.

The Tigers took advantage of two costly errors from Pitt in the bottom of the third, and brought home

four unearned runs to close the gap.

Schnurbusch pushed Pitt’s lead to 8-4 in the top of the fourth on a solo home run to left-center field. But the Tigers wouldn’t go away quietly, as Nicholas Wheeler responded with a solo home run of his own to lead off the bottom of the fourth for Grambling State.

Pitt increased its lead with two more runs in the top of the fifth when Maldonado tripled and junior Jacob Wright followed with a two-run home run. Schnurbusch belted his second solo homer of the game in the top of the sixth to extend Pitt’s lead to 11-5.

Grambling State put up one more run in the bottom of the sixth, but Yarnall added an RBI single in the top of the seventh before Sherman put the game away for Pitt with a bases-clearing double.

The Panthers tacked on one more run in the top of the ninth to win the series opener, 16-6. Starting pitcher Sam Mersing got his second win of the season, allowing only one earned run in five innings and striking out six.

Pitt’s bats came out ablaze again on Saturday afternoon, putting up three runs in the top of the first with the help of a bases-loaded single from Sherman.

After Grambling State capitalized on a miscue by the Panthers to get on the board in the bottom of the third inning, senior Matt Johnson tripled in the top of the fourth and Maldonado brought him home with a single, one of four hits in the game for Maldonado.

Grambling State cut into Pitt’s lead in the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run by Johan Mojica. Then, in the top of the fifth, it was Yarnall’s turn to lead off an inning again. The first baseman smacked a 2-2 pitch over the wall in right field, setting the tone for Pitt’s biggest inning of the season so far.

With Maldonado at the plate and the bases loaded, senior Alex Kowalczyk came home from third on a passed ball, negating the possibility of a grand slam. Maldonado settled for a three-run homer instead, his first of the season. Later in the inning, Wright scored on a double-steal when LeBlanc stole second, bringing Yarnall back to the plate.

With a runner on second, two outs and a full count, Yarnall crushed the payoff pitch over the wall in right for his second home run of the inning, and Kowalczyk went back-to-back for his second homer of the season before Grambling State finally got the third out. The Panthers tallied nine runs in the inning to take a commanding 13-2 lead, and held on to win, 14-6.

In the series finale Sunday afternoon, the Panthers used an RBI double by Kowalczyk to jump out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. After solo homers by Kowalczyk and Wright in the top of the third inning, though, it looked like Pitt’s hot bats had finally cooled off.

Grambling State came back with consecutive home runs in the bottom of the third to tie the game 3-3, and starting pitcher Dion Holbrook was cruising, holding the Panthers scoreless over the next three innings while allowing only one baserunner. The Tigers took the lead in the fourth, tacked on another run in the sixth, and had to like their chances with a 5-3 lead entering the seventh inning.

The Panthers had already shown an ability to come from behind at the Historic Dodgertown Classic, so no one was counting them out of the game yet. Surely no one expected them to put the game out of reach before the inning was over either, but that’s exactly what they did.

Wright singled home Maldonado to trim the deficit to one, then LeBlanc singled home Johnson and Wright to retake the lead for Pitt. LeBlanc advanced to second on the throw, but the Tigers chose not to pitch around Yarnall with first base open, which proved to be a mistake. He sent a two-run bomb to right-center field for his fourth home run of the weekend.

That was enough to chase Holbrook out of the game, but Pitt was not done, and neither was Yarnall.

Kowalczyk greeted reliever Creighton Hoover with a double to left, then scored after consecutive singles by Schnurbusch and Sherman to give Pitt a 9-5 lead. Parry brought Schnurbusch home on a fielder’s choice, then Wright drove home Parry and Maldonado with a single to make it 12-5. LeBlanc followed with a three-run homer, his first of the season, to chase Hoover.

The Tigers brought in reliever Brennan Williams to try to get Yarnall out, but the result was the same. Yarnall sent Williams’ 3-2 offering over the wall in right for his second two-homer inning in as many days, giving him five home runs in the series — his first five of the season.

After another double by Kowalczyk, Schnurbusch blasted his third homer of the season, giving Pitt an 18-5 lead and capping off a 15-run seventh inning. Reliever Josh Falk took care of the Tigers in the bottom half, and Pitt won on the mercy rule after seven innings.

The Panthers are now 6-1 on the season, and will look to continue their hot streak at New Orleans at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 4, for the first of a three-game series against the Privateers.

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