The Massachusetts baseball team finished off its first three-game sweep of the year on Saturday, as it beat La Salle and moved into first place in the Atlantic 10 conference.
Most recently, UMass (9-10, 5-1 A-10) defeated the Explorers, 2-1, on Saturday at home. It was the third game in a row that the Minutemen won by one run, and the second consecutive contest that Rich Graef was responsible for the walk-off run.
It was a pitching duel, as Ryan Donahue of La Salle (15-16, 3-6 A-10) took on UMass’ Joe Popielarczyk, who was one of three starters who threw magnificently over the three-game stretch. He pitched 8 innings, giving up one unearned run, six hits and six strikeouts.
Popielarczyk has been consistent during the entire season, with a 2-0 record and a 1.05 ERA.
“I just try to keep everything the same,” said Popierlarczyk. “Stay relaxed out there, stay confident and attacking hitters.”
Donahue pitched five strong innings, struck out seven, and allowed one run on five hits.
The Minutemen’s first run came in the fourth inning when Tom Conley led off with a single past the left side of the infield.
Adam Picard then doubled down the left field line, which allowed Conley to advance to third, as UMass had two runners in scoring position with no outs.
After a ground out by Nik Campero, Donahue threw a wild pitch with Dylan Begin up at bat, which enabled Conley to score the first run and Picard advanced 90 feet to third.
Begin then hit a solid fly ball to right field, but when Picard attempted to score, he was gunned down at the plate on a strong throw from Brendan Norton.
Norton then provided assistance again for the Explorers in the top of the sixth, with a line-drive single up the middle. He followed the hit up with some wise base-running. Popielarczyk attempted to keep the Norton close to the first base bag, but when he attempted to pick him off, he threw the ball wild, which allowed Norton to sprint all the way to third base.
Norton then scored on a single as Popielarczyk allowed his only (unearned) run of the game.
In the bottom of the seventh, things took a scary turn for La Salle, when pitcher Shane Petrellis was hit in the right side of his head by a scorching one-hopper off the bat of Begin.
Begin reached first, but Petrellis fell to the ground immediately and lay on the ground with his right leg twitching. After roughly a 10-minute delay, Petrellis was helped up by the Explorer coaching staff and trainers, and taken to a nearby hospital.
“Any time something like this happens it’s just scary,” said Duffy. “It’s when you realize it’s just a game we’re playing here, and there are much more important things such as the health of our players.”
In the bottom of the ninth, tied at one, Graef came up with one away and the bases empty.
He singled up the middle, and then let his base running take over the game.
With Ryan Cusick up at the plate, Graef stole second base and then advanced to third on a throwing error by La Salle catcher Adam Kammler.
Graef’s base running adventure continued when the ball bounced by center fielder George Smith Jr. Stone waved him home from third base and he scored the game-winning run as a crowd of Minutemen greeted him to celebrate the victory.
“He’s been playing really well,” said Popielarczyk of Graef. “He’s been coming up with clutch hitting, clutch base-running, and it’s just amazing.”
The middle game of the series was a controversial one, as four La Salle players were ejected for arguing, in the Minutemen’s, 5-4, win Friday.
It was also the first of two walk-off games for UMass, with the heroics off the bat of Graef.
Glen Misho was on the mound for the Minutemen in Game 2, as he put in 6.2 innings of work, including five straight scoreless innings to kick off the game.
UMass took charge immediately with a single up the middle by lead-off man Ryan Cusick. After advancing to second on a sac bunt by Rob McLam, Cusick stole his 14th bag of the season, and stood just 90 feet from the plate.
Anthony Serino then batted in his first run of the game when he grounded out to first base, which scored Cusick.
In the fourth, the Minutemen extended their lead to two, after a single by Serino, who was later brought home on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Picard.
Serino joined Campero and Nick Sanford as Minutemen with three hits on the afternoon.
The Explorers knotted up the score in the sixth inning, with the help of some woeful fielding on the behalf of UMass. They had two errors in the inning, to add to a total of five for the game.
The fielding improved in the later innings when the Minutemen were attempting to prevent the game-tying run to score.
The first controversial play occurred in the sixth inning when La Salle’s Jon Gyles smacked a single. Joe Bennie, who was at first at the time, advanced to third on the hit, and when Graef threw the ball from leftfield to third base, Gyles broke towards second. Misho cut the ball off and tossed it to second a split-second too late as Gyles was safe. However, at that moment Bennie sprinted towards home, but was gunned out in a close play by Cusick.
The bang-bang play caused an out-roar from the visitors dugout, which ended in the ejection of second baseman Jeff Flax.
The Explorers would retaliate in the seventh when they doubled their score to take a 4-2 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Minutemen needed two runs to extend the lead, and they started off in the right direction when Sanford doubled to right.
Graef was then hit by a pitch, and Cusick dropped reached on an error to load the bases
UMass scored its third run of the game on a fielder’s choice off the bat of McLam.
Serino then reached on a fielder’s choice, which scored Graef for the tying run, and resulted in two more ejections from the Explorer dugout.
In what would have been a game-ending double play, the first base umpire said that the first baseman’s foot came off the bag, which allowed the game to continue.
In the bottom of the 10th, UMass rallied once again, when Campero singled down the right field line to start off the inning.
He was replaced by pinch runner Jeff Cavanaro, who advanced to second on a sac bunt, and then proceeded to third when Sanford singled to the left side of the infield.
That brought up Graef in a pressure situation, who capitalized with a single up the middle on the first pitch he saw, and the Minutemen walked off with a victory.
Graef knew he had the game-winner once his bat made contact.
“I saw it go passed the pitcher, and I was pumped,” said Graef. “That might be my first game-winning hit in my whole life.”
Stone said that the win was without a doubt the biggest win for UMass this year.
“Comeback wins are always great,” said Stone. “But to win an extra-inning game like that at home, it’s really good.”
Taylor Snow can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at MDC_Snow.