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UMass baseball drops pitchers’ duel against Virginia Commonwealth

(Jong Man Kim/Daily Collegian)

The 40-degree weather seemed to keep the Massachusetts baseball team’s bats just as cool Saturday afternoon in Amherst. Virginia Commonwealth pitcher Brooks Vial, like his teammate Sean Thompson did the previous day, no-hit UMass through five innings. He didn’t allow a run while surrendering just two hits in 6.2 innings, leading the Rams to  2-0 win over the Minutemen at Earl Lorden Field.

UMass (6-16, 2-3 Atlantic 10) hitters struggled to make solid contact throughout and failed to take advantage of Vial’s four walks, and left runners stranded in scoring position in the third, fifth and sixth innings.

“We got to play better,” Minutemen coach Mike Stone said. “We have to bring more energy, clear our heads and have better at-bats. We need to do more offensively to have a chance to win, simple as that.”

The Minutemen wasted the longest outing of starting pitcher Brook Knapek’s young career in the process. The freshmen went 8.2 innings and surrendered one earned run on seven hits.

Knapek was closing in on a complete game when second basemen Jon Avallone and right fielder Nolan Kessinger misjudged a shallow pop fly that would’ve ended the inning. Kessinger overthrew catcher Matt Bare for an error after he picked up the ball, allowing the second Rams (18-13, 7-1 A-10) to score.

“[Knapek] was tremendous, definitely pitched well enough to win the ballgame,” Stone said. “It’s too bad we didn’t give him any run support because he played a hell of a game.”

Saturday was the third time this season Knapek allowed two or fewer earned runs and still came out as the losing pitcher.

“I thought the team had a good outing,” Knapek said. “We played great team defense today, they were making plays left and right behind me. I was just hitting my spots and letting my team do the work.”

UMass starting catcher Keith Linnane highlighted that defense in the fifth inning with a diving one-handed grab on a Haiden Lamb bunt attempt.

Linnane was also the last runner the Minutemen had on base in the game, following a single with two outs in the eighth, however he was caught stealing and the Minutemen would not threaten again.

In total, UMass managed seven total base runners and never advanced past second base. VCU pitching pounded the outside part of the plate versus the predominantly right-handed Minutemen lineup, and shifted the entire defense toward right field to bait hitters to pull the ball. The strategy proved effective as UMass was unable to turn on anything and all solid contact was hit right at the Ram defense.

“That’s college baseball nowadays,” Stone said. “Everybody knows in college baseball that you need to handle the outside part of the plate to be a successful hitter.”

This loss now puts the Minutemen’s streak at seven games, and are now 10 games below .500 on the season.

“We can’t focus on our record, that’s after the fact of the results of what we’re doing on the field,” Stone said. “We have to focus on playing well each day, each inning, each pitch. Our hitters are really pressing right now and they need to keep their approach at the plate simple.”

Stone said the urgency the losing skid has caused is contributing to a cyclical decrease in offensive production, as hitters are thinking too much at the plate.

“They’re really pressing right now,” Stone said. “I told them to clear they’re heads tonight and try to keep their approach to the plate simple.”

UMass can earn some consolation in the final game of the series with VCU tomorrow with first pitch schedule for noon.

Chris Marino can be reached at cmarino@umass.edu.

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