Zeuch, Sandefur lead Pitt baseball to first ACC series win of season


T.J. Zeuch on the mound pitching. Jordan Mondell | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein / Staff Writer

T.J. Zeuch’s return couldn’t have come at a better time for the Pitt baseball team.

With their ace back after missing the early portion of the season due to injury, the Panthers have won three out of four since his season debut last week against Florida State, as Zeuch helped power the Panthers to a crucial weekend performance against Boston College.

The Panthers got their first series win in ACC play this season, taking two out of three at Charles L. Cost Field over the weekend against the Golden Eagles. After dropping game one of the series Thursday, the Panthers battled back for a 5-0 victory in game two Friday, then won an exciting back-and-forth battle in game three Saturday, 5-4.

Following an unwanted trend, the series got off to a rough start for the Panthers Thursday afternoon. Boston College’s leadoff man Jake Palomaki walked to start the game, and Joe Cronin followed with a two-run home run to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead.

The Panthers got a run back in the bottom of the first inning, but Boston College regained the lead in the top of the fourth on a solo home run by Mitch Bigras. Boston College added three more runs in the top of the sixth to take a 6-2 lead. Pitt added a run in the bottom of the sixth to cut the deficit to 6-3 and scored another in the seventh, but left the bases loaded and lost game one, 6-4.

On Friday, starting pitcher Aaron Sandefur came out surging and stayed hot until the final pitch. The senior didn’t allow a hit until the third inning, when the Eagles strung together back-to-back singles with two outs, but Sandefur struck Cronin out to end the inning.

The Panthers got on the board first with a pair of runs in the third, then added another run in the fifth to take a 3-0 lead. As Sandefur kept racking up K’s, Pitt added two more insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth to extend the lead to 5-0.

Sandefur retired the side in the seventh, but gave up a leadoff double in the top of the eighth. That was the last baserunner he would allow, stranding the runner on second before striking out the side in the top of the ninth to preserve the shutout.

The dominant performance was Pitt’s first complete game of the year. Sandefur allowed five hits and no walks along with a team season-high 12 strikeouts over nine shutout innings.

“The key with Aaron, he doesn’t have a power arm, he’s not gonna blow the ball by people,” Pitt head coach Joe Jordano said. “But conversely, when he keeps the ball down, works ahead in the count and commands his off-speed, he’s very effective. That’s what he did, and that’s why we prevailed.”

In the rubber match on Saturday afternoon, staff ace T.J. Zeuch took the mound looking to pick up right where his teammate left off on Friday. But Pitt’s batters had an ace of their own to deal with in Boston College freshman starting pitcher Jacob Stevens. The Eagles’ 6-foot-3, 248-pound right-hander entered the game with a 2-0 record and a 0.31 E.R.A. in his first five starts. This anticipated pitchers’ duel lived up to the billing.

“[Going against a guy like Stevens] doesn’t necessarily change the mindset, it kind of makes it a little more fun for me,” Zeuch said. “Knowing, like last year going against Nathan Kirby and Michael Matuella, just that level of competition, it puts that much more pressure on me.”

Zeuch gave up his first earned run of the season when Anthony Maselli homered to straightaway center to lead off the top of the third. The Eagles then put runners on the corners with one out, but Pitt’s hurler limited the damage with back-to-back strikeouts to strand a pair of runners.

Boston College had the early 1-0 lead, but Zeuch kept rolling in the top of the fourth, striking out the side to keep the game close.

The Panthers struck back in the bottom of the fourth when sophomore Charles LeBlanc walked, advanced to third on a double to deep center field by junior Nick Yarnall and scored on an RBI groundout by senior Alex Kowalczyk to tie the game, 1-1.

Zeuch then cruised through the fifth and sixth innings, and reliever John Nicklas replaced Stevens on the mound in the bottom of the sixth for Boston College.

The Panthers took advantage of the pitching change, as Yarnall walked and stole second with one out, then Kowalczyk brought him home with a towering triple off the wall in left-center to give Pitt its first lead of the game. Freshman David Yanni followed with a sacrifice fly to make the score 3-1.

Zeuch returned to the mound and recorded a pair of strikeouts in the top of the seventh inning to retire the side. He finished with one run allowed on six hits and no walks with 11 strikeouts in seven innings of work before reliever Isaac Mattson came in to pitch the eighth.

Mattson gave up a leadoff single then struck out the next two batters he faced, but back-to-back walks loaded the bases. Michael Strem then delivered a two-run single to right field to tie the game at three before Mattson got Logan Hoggarth to fly out to end the inning.

Yarnall got the rally started in the bottom of the eighth with a two-out walk. Yanni then made the Eagles pay for intentionally walking Kowalczyk to get to him, driving the go-ahead single to left field and advancing to second on an error. Kowalczyk came home when Frank Maldonado reached on an error, and the Panthers took a 5-3 lead into the top of the ninth.

After a leadoff double for Boston College, freshman Yaya Chentouf came in to record the final three outs. The Eagles brought home a run on a passed ball, but Chentouf got Cronin to pop out to save the 5-4 win for Pitt.

“It’s the team camaraderie I think,” Kowalczyk said when describing the team’s effort to take the lead right back after Boston College tied it. “We want to play for each other, and we don’t want to give up something we know we can get, and that’s what we got today.”

The Panthers are now 11-9 on the season and 4-5 in ACC play. They host Kent State 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, at Cost Field in a rematch of Pitt’s 9-4 win on March 16.

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