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Strong starting pitching wasn’t enough as UMass baseball gets swept by Elon in season-opening series

Baseball practice on Garber Field Feb. 17. (Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

Despite strong outings from starting pitchers Justin Lasko, Brooks Knapek and Mike Geannelis, the Massachusetts baseball team opened up its season in North Carolina getting swept by Elon in a three-game against the Phoenix this past weekend to start the 2017 campaign.

The series wrapped up Sunday with a 5-1 loss despite Geannelis going seven strong innings allowing only five hits and two runs while striking out nine. UMass’ starters surrendered only five earned runs total over the three games with Lasko allowing one run in seven innings pitched in the series opener and Knapek allowing two runs in six innings Saturday.

“The most positive thing was that we had really outstanding starting pitching.” Minutemen coach Mike Stone said following Sunday’s game.

The weekend started with a 4-3 loss for UMass (0-3) on Friday. In the best offensive production of the weekend, the Minutemen led 3-1 heading into the eighth inning before loading the bases with two walks and a hit batter that led to a two-run single by Elon’s James Venuto. In the ninth, UMass fell on a walk-off single to right field by Phoenix designated hitter Kory Shumate.

Although Friday was opening day for the Minutemen, it was actually the 10th game for Elon (6-6), whose season is now two weeks old. UMass struggled to attack the first live pitching it has seen and were handled by a pitching staff that already had multiple starts under their belt. In the three games combined, the Minutemen hit .185 and produced four runs.

“The later start for the season really hurt our execution in the short game,” Stone said. “We had opportunities in all three games to execute and we didn’t. That would have changed the complexion of all three games, it’s just a matter of getting reps and getting comfortable in game situations. Except for those miscues, I thought we played really well.”

Relief pitching was an additional source of trouble for UMass as relievers allowed seven of the 12 runs the Phoenix scored throughout the series and did so in critical situations.

In addition to Friday’s walk-off win, a three-run eighth inning for Elon put the game out of reach on Sunday. With the Phoenix leading 2-1 entering the frame, a leadoff homer by center fielder Zach Evers followed by a two-run single at the end of the inning by right fielder Jamal Clarke sealed the game for Elon.

“The guys who pitch at the back end of the game just need to get their feet wet and execute better, that’s all,” Stone said. “But I think that there’s a lot more in the tank here, we just need to get our feet wet and pitch better at the end of the game.”

Senior co-captains Mike Hart and Dylan Morris were absent from this weekend’s lineup card from what Stone referred to as a “team situation.” Hart and Morris, who missed a combined two games all of last season, were UMass’ most productive outfielders in 2016.

At a juncture of the season where repetition is as important as anything to get up to full speed and to catch up to the rest of Division I baseball, which kicked off two weeks ago, two of the most productive players won’t be getting at-bats until the issue is resolved.

“We just have to deal with it,” Stone said. “Next man up, other people will have opportunities and they need to make the best of them. I thought a number of people did that this weekend. Nolan Kessinger did a great job in the outfield where we were down to three outfielders … [the outfield] played fine, we played solid defensively throughout the entire weekend.”

With the new faces in the lineup, Stone is upbeat about UMass and its outlook as the Minutemen have seven games in eight days over spring break next week including the Delray Beach Invitational.

“As I told them at the end of the ballgame today, we certainly looked a lot better than we did at Charleston Southern on opening day last year,” Stone said. “I expect us to get even better.”

UMass will next take the field next versus Maine on Friday at the invitational. After three games against the Black Bears, the Minutemen will play North Dakota State and Harvard before wrapping the week up with a three-game against Bucknell.

Chris Marino can be reached at cmarino@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @marinochris.

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