Minutemen lose in extras, split Saturday doubleheader with NJIT

By Daniel Malone

Alex Aritan/Collegian

After spending much of the early spring on the road, the Massachusetts baseball team wrapped up its first home series of the season with a doubleheader split against the New Jersey Institute of Technology on Saturday.

UMass scratched out a 1-0 win over the Highlanders in the early game, but its bid to earn a series sweep and extend its winning streak to three games came up short in a 7-6 extra-inning loss in the backend of the twin bill.

Trailing 5-3 heading into the home half of the eighth, the Minutemen (3-13, 0-3 Atlantic 10) broke out for three runs against NJIT (7-14) reliever Bill Van Meerbeke. After a single and pair of walks loaded the bases with two outs, second baseman Ryan Cusick lined a ground ball through the left side of the infield to drive in the tying runs. An RBI single from left fielder Rich Graef a batter later scored Cusick and gave the Minutemen the late lead.

Ron Wallace, who was making his second appearance of the day after closing out Game 1, came on to try to pick up his second save of the afternoon, but allowed an inherited runner to score when a potential 3-6-4 double play to end the game was beaten out by the Highlander runner down the first base line.

A sacrifice fly off Wallace from right fielder Andrew Benjamin in the top of the 11th plated what ended up being the game-winning run for NJIT.

“We should’ve won both games,” UMass coach Mike Stone said. “Even with the fact that they went ahead – and it was disappointing that they went ahead – then we tied it up and went ahead, we were in a position to win the ballgame. I thought we should’ve won it in extras, too.”

Before Saturday, Wallace, the team’s captain, had yet to see game action due to lingering arm troubles. While he was able to shake off the rust and lock down the win in his first outing, he struggled to make pitches when called upon for a second go-around.

“I think I got a little frustrated,” he said. “My stuff got a little flat. My slider’s my best pitch, and it wasn’t working for me today.”

The blown lead was the second of the game for the Minutemen, who, for the second time that day, manufactured a first inning score to open the game. Cusick led off for UMass with his only hit of the game, then stole second and was driven in by Graef after throwing error on the steal attempt allowed him to advance to third.

Graef would come around to score the second run of the inning off Highlanders starter Matt Coughlin on a sacrifice fly from right fielder Adam Picard.

The lead didn’t last long, however, as Minutemen starter Jordan Pace struggled to work around a UMass defense that committed a total of seven errors in the game. NJIT scored a pair of runs to tie the game in the third and by the sixth had opened up a 5-3 lead.

“When you make seven errors, you can’t really hope to win,” Stone said. “We’re doing some tough things, we’re just struggling. We’re struggling (by) getting ourselves out at the plate, we’re not throwing enough strikes (and) seven errors is not really good defense.”

Pace was pulled after six innings, having allowed five runs (three earned) on seven hits and two walks while striking out three.

Graef (three), Picard (two) and designated hitter Rob McLam (two) each collected multiple hits for the Minutemen.

Minutemen scrape out Game 1 win

While the teams combined for 13 runs in the second half of the doubleheader, offense was nearly nonexistent in UMass’ 1-0 shutout victory in Game 1.

Up against Highlanders starter Mark Leiter Jr., son of former MLB pitcher Mark Leiter and nephew of longtime New York Mets starter Al Leiter, the Minutemen managed a total of four hits. The only run of the game came on a wild pitch in the first inning that scored Cusick, who had singled, stole second and was sacrificed over to third.

In a game where Leiter Jr. consistently had batters off balance with a good mix of speed and command, Stone’s strategy for manufacturing runs at the top of the order with the speedy Cusick, who stole four of the team’s 11 bases in the series, paid off.

“Not too many guys can throw him out,” Stone said. “And he’s got great speed. We like to do that, and we felt we had a good chance at stealing bases based on their catcher’s time (to second) and the pitcher’s time (to the plate).”

While Leiter Jr. was dominating hitters through eight innings, UMass starter Andrew Grant was also putting zeroes on the scoreboard, though in a much more dangerous fashion.

Though he allowed only two hits over a career-high seven-plus innings, Grant struggled with control, walking six Highlander batters, hitting another and tossing a wild pitch.

“(He) struggled with command,” Stone said. “He’s got a great arm, just you look for more from him in a positive way. I think (with) that game, we were fortunate to win one, I think.”

“Definitely didn’t feel like I had my best stuff today, but (I) tried to battle,” Grant added. “They didn’t have too many hits, which definitely helped. (With) six walks, you put yourself into a little bit of trouble, but I tried to work my way out of the situations and made pitches when I needed to.”

After performing his tightrope act, Grant gave way to Wallace, who pitched two perfect innings in relief to lock down the tight win and pick up the save.

Though his team picked up consecutive victories for the first time this season, the extra inning loss in the series finale left a sour taste in Stone’s mouth.

“When you lose a ballgame you don’t feel too good about it, even though you won the two previous games,” he said. “It’s the last thing that’s present in your mind. It would’ve been a great win to come back and win it.”

The Minutemen are back in action on Monday at 3 p.m. at Siena for the start of a five-game road stretch.

Daniel Malone can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.