Zeuch returns to the mound for third game win

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Zeuch returns to the mound for third game win

TJ Zeuch pitches in a snowy game vs. Florida State Sunday afternoon.  Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

TJ Zeuch pitches in a snowy game vs. Florida State Sunday afternoon. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

TJ Zeuch pitches in a snowy game vs. Florida State Sunday afternoon. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

TJ Zeuch pitches in a snowy game vs. Florida State Sunday afternoon. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein / Staff Writer

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Junior pitcher T.J. Zeuch is back in his rightful place on the mound.

Pitt’s highly touted starter — D1 Baseball’s No. 41 prospect in the country for the 2016 draft and the fourth-highest ranked pitcher — took the first month of the season off to recover from a groin injury. No. 11 Florida State had the unwelcome task of facing the imposing 6-foot-7 right-hander in his first game back Sunday, and its bats were no match.

But without Zeuch in the first and second games of the series, the Pitt baseball team had a tough start to the weekend. The Panthers lost their home opener 17-4 Friday night and 10-2 Saturday night. They rebounded in a big way behind their ace on Sunday, beating the Seminoles 5-2 for their first-ever win in 25 meetings with Florida State.

Head coach Joe Jordano summed up what he saw as weaknesses in Pitt’s previous performance against Florida State and North Carolina. He said although those games were blowouts on paper, in reality Pitt was consistently keeping up with its opponents.

“We were in every game at some point,” Jordano said. “And we made some mistakes that, unfortunately, when you’re facing the No. 6 team in the country and the No. 10 team [FSU,no.11,] in the country, you can’t make those mistakes.”

The Panthers’ home opener Friday night had an immediately ugly start as the Seminoles got the scoring started with four runs in the top of the first inning.

Pitt added a run in the bottom of the third, when senior Ron Sherman tripled and junior Jacob Wright brought him home with a sacrifice fly. The Seminoles tacked on two more runs in the top of the fourth to take a 5-1 lead — which the Panthers would answer in the bottom of the inning.

In the bottom of the fourth, senior Aaron Schnurbusch blasted a three-run shot — his fifth homer of the season but Pitt’s first at Charles L. Cost Field — to make it a one-run game. That was all the offense Pitt could muster on Friday, though.

Florida State blew the game open with four runs in the top of the sixth inning and five runs in the top of the seventh, before adding two more in the top of the ninth to take a 17-4 win in game one of the series.

In game two of the series, the Panthers took the first lead in the bottom of the third inning on an RBI single by sophomore Charles LeBlanc.

After Florida State scored its first run on a hit by pitch with the bases loaded, Cal Raleigh cleared the bases with a triple to chase pitcher Aaron Sandefur out of the game. Reliever Garrett Wrambel came in to finish the inning, but not before Raleigh scored on a sacrifice fly to make it a 5-1 game.

Pitt scored one more run to make it 5-2 in the bottom of the fifth. Florida State came right back with a run in the top of the sixth and the seventh, two more in the eighth and one more in the ninth to finish off a 10-2 victory in game two.

On Sunday, Zeuch finally took the field, giving a wobbly performance at first.

He walked the leadoff man, Taylor Walls, who then advanced to second base on a wild pitch. LeBlanc committed a throwing error on a slow-rolling grounder up the middle, pulling the first baseman Nick Yarnall off the bag and allowing Walls to come around and score from second.

With temperatures hovering in the 30s and flurries of snow coming down throughout the game, Zeuch battled the cold while trying to regain his bearings after a month out.

“I didn’t really feel it out there, maybe a couple times at the beginning of an inning, just getting my grip back with my hand being cold,” Zeuch said. “But other than that, I felt pretty close to 100 percent.”

Zeuch settled in, and before long he was pitching like an ace in midseason form. He recorded a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play, then induced a soft ground ball to get out of the top of the first allowing only one unearned run.

“Quite frankly the first four weekends I think we might have had a couple more wins with [Zeuch] on the mound, simply because he chews up so many innings on the front end,” Jordano said. “With him on the bump, it’s a completely different ball game.”

Pitt jumped on the Seminoles in the bottom of the first, as Wright and LeBlanc led off with back-to-back walks.

Yarnall bunted the runners to second and third, then senior Alex Kowalczyk reached on a throwing error by the third baseman, allowing both runners to score.

Zeuch retired the side in the second and third, striking out a pair in each inning. The Seminoles, despite being hitless in the first five innings, tied the game at two in the top of the fourth.

After another 1-2-3 inning for Zeuch in the top of the fifth, the Panthers used a sacrifice fly from freshamn David Yanni to take a 3-2 lead into the sixth inning.

Zeuch finally gave up his first hit of the season on a leadoff single in the top of the sixth. He responded by retiring the next three batters, capping off his debut with his eighth strikeout to end the inning.

Zeuch allowed zero earned runs on one hit and two walks with the eight strikeouts in six innings of work.

Back-to-back doubles by junior Caleb Parry and sophomore Frank Maldonado gave the Panthers a 4-2 lead, then reliever Isaac Mattson retired the side in the top of the seventh.

Kowalczyk blasted his fifth home run of the season to extend Pitt’s lead to 5-2 in the bottom of the seventh. Mattson didn’t waste this effort, pitching another scoreless frame in the top of the eighth before retiring the side again in the ninth to record the save and cap off Pitt’s first win against Florida State in program history.

Kowalczyk had a great view of Zeuch’s debut as his battery mate behind the plate.

“He did really well to start off, his ball had a lot of run on it,” Kowalczyk said. “But for him to come out and do what he did right there for six innings, after not being healthy for four weeks, it’s pretty incredible.”

The Panthers are now 9-8 on the season and 2-4 in ACC play. Conference play continues on Thursday afternoon, when the Panthers host Boston College at 3 p.m. for the first of a three-game series.

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