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Spartans Sweep Gardner-Webb In First Conference Series

USC Upstate baseball has been on an absolute heater over the last 2 weeks. Although the Spartans took 2 of three from the Ivy League favorite Penn Quakers, the brutal non-conference and midweek schedule continued as Upstate took to the road for a 2 game set with then #18-ranked Coastal Carolina. In the end, it was an 0-2 stay in Conway, with the Chanticleers taking game one 14-8 and the 2nd 9-2. Upstate got back on the right foot back at Harley Park last weekend, as they swept Rider 9-3, 9-8, and 16-10. Those three wins were the beginning of what would be a 5-game win streak coming into the first weekend of Big South Conference play.


After a tough midweek bout with Tennessee Tech in which both games went back and forth and ended in walkoff home runs for the Spartans – one fro Grant Sherrod and the other from Troy Hamilton, USCU would welcome the team picked to finish second in the standings behind them – the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs – to Harley Park.


The series opener on Friday evening started out exactly the way you would expect from a battle of 2 teams picked to finish at the top of the standings. In a battle of aces, Upstate’s Noah Sullivan and GWU’s Blake Brogdon, both shut their opposition down. Sullivan got the better of the day, earning the win with a 7 scoreless inning, 6 hit, 2 walk, 7 strikeout performance, the highlight of which came in the top of the 5th inning.


With 1 out and his fastball command all but gone, he surrendered a pair of singles with a walk sandwiched in between to load the bases with 2 of the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ better hitters coming up. Sullivan was able to escape the jam by going to his offspeed stuff to get back to back swinging strikeouts. That helped to ultimately swing the momentum into the Spartans’ favor.


Upstate finally found some offense in the bottom of the 6th when Troy Hamilton doubled to right with one out. Grant Sherrod followed it with an RBI single to give the Spartans the lead for good. USCU would add 2 more runs in the frame with a 2 out double from Koby Kropf that plated Sherrod and a bloop single into right from David Pereira that scored Kropf. The Spartans added their 4th and final run on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 8th, but aside from finding just enough offense, and scoring without a single home run, the key to the night was the efficient work of closer Jake Cubbler.


Jake worked 2 innings and earned the save, and did so on just 15 pitches, striking out three in the process as the Spartans got the shutout 4-0 win.


Saturday’s game played out similarly to the midweek contests against TTU. The Spartans jumped out to an early lead, scoring 4 runs over the first 3 innings, 2 of which came on a 2 run blast from Troy Hamilton in the bottom of the 3rd. However the Bulldogs were finally able to get their bats going after being shut down for 12 innings in the ensuing half inning.


Upstate starter Mathieu Curtis surrendered just one hit and 2 other base runners in the first three frames. But, he ran into trouble in the top of the 4th by allowing 4 straight base hits, which led to the Upstate lead being cut to 4-3. The Spartans got a run back on a leadoff solo homer from Jace Rinehart that was answered with a game-tying 1 out 2 run blast from Tommy Tavarez.

Those 5 runs off Mathieu Curtis would be all Gardner-Webb could muster the rest of the way as Jagger Jeffris and Cooper Ellingworth combined for 4 shutout frames. Jeffris walked 2 and struck out 2 with no runs and no hits allowed. Ellingworth earned the save despite 2 hits and 2 walks in his 2 innings of work, striking out 1.


The Spartans’ bats would come to life once again late without the aid of a home run after Jake Armsey led off the bottom of the 7th with a double. Daniel Gernon followed it with a two-bagger of his own to score him and give Upstate the lead they would not relinquish. Noah Sullivan was intentionally walked with 2 out and Koby Kropf drew a walk to set the stage for a 2 run single from Jace Rinehart to push Upstate to the 8-5 win to claim the series.


The series finale was a tale of used up/sunday pitching – at least for the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Looking to avoid the sweep, GWU used seven different arms in the game – a trend started after their starter, Michael Ciminiello, went just 1 inning in which the Spartans struck quickly. Upstate plated 3 in the first inning, setting the tone for an offensive explosion. They would cruise to a 20-2 win in 7 innings to complete the sweep, highlighted by a 6 spot in the 4th and a 9 spot in the 5th.


“I like the way we played all weekend. Three days of errorless baseball where we walked 8 guys total all weekend, both of which is a recipe to keep you in ballgames. They pitched us well the first 2 games, and used up a lot of guys. That separates us from a lot of teams. We have a lot of depth on the mound and I think that showed as well. I think we made a good statement this weekend to take care of business at home against what I think will end up being one of the better teams in the league in Gardner-Webb”, said Upstate Head Coach Mike McGuire.


One thing that stood out, particularly in Upstate’s blowout on Sunday is that they had some success pinch hitting that they have not up to this point in the season. Tyler Lang and Cooper Zohner both came off the bench in the bottom of the 5th and collected their first career knocks with Lang’s coming in the form of a grand slam.


“We had not had much success with pinch hitting even in blowouts. We talked about it last week – the strike zone gets bigger in a blowout. You have to come up swinging. Those guys did that today. It was good to see”, said McGuire.


Upstate, now 14-7 on the season and 3-0 in the conference, will go on the road for the first time on a weekend this week. After a Tuesday night stop in Greenville to take on South Carolina, they will hit the road for a 3 game set with the Radford Highlanders.


“We have to take care of business on the road. We have played 3 away from home now with Clemson and Coastal Carolina. We aren’t playing pushovers on the road. But, we are gonna have to go up there with a sense of urgency. It will be their opening weekend in conference. They’re gonna want to get off to a good start and get up to play us. I think we have to be very business-like, similar to how we were this weekend and do the same thing next weekend. I like the way we are playing. We are better than we were opening weekend. We just have to keep getting better. We want to be at our very best in May and early June”, said Coach McGuire.


Tuesday night’s midweek game at Fluor Field is set for a 6:00 first pitch while the weekend at Radford begins Friday at 5, continues Saturday at 2, and concludes Sunday afternoon at 1:00.

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