The South Florida Bulls baseball team finished their 2017 home schedule in style with a sweep of conference basement-dwellers East Carolina. USF ran their overall record to 37-10, and when Houston lost to UConn on Sunday, the Bulls took over sole possession of first place in The American at 12-6.
Friday: USF 8, East Carolina 6
The only troubling development of the weekend was another subpar Phoenix Sanders outing. He managed to get through five innings for USF, but allowed five runs and eight hits, including four for extra bases. Three of the runs were unearned, so it didn’t hurt his ERA too badly, but it’s not good to see your ace getting hit that hard.
Fortunately the Bulls were hitting hard too. They scraped across two runs in the 3rd inning on a fielder’s choice and a balk to cut the Pirates’ early lead to 3-2. Then they took the lead in the 4th with an RBI infield single by Tyler Dietrich, a double by Andres Leal to score Dietrich, and a Coco Montes base hit to bring Leal home.
With the score tied at 5 in the bottom of the seventh, the Bulls put up three more runs on a Duke Stunkel RBI single, and then a two-run single from Dietrich. ECU kept fighting, getting a run back in the 8th and putting two runners on in the 9th. But Joe Cavallaro got Kirk Morgan to ground out to end the game.
Saturday: USF 5, East Carolina 4 (10 innings)
Welcome back Kevin Merrell! After returning to the Bulls’ lineup Friday, Merrell made his presence felt Saturday with a 4-for-5 evening, including a home run to lead off the game. USF made it a 4-0 game in the 5th inning with a Coco Montes RBI double, a Duke Stunkel sacrifice to score Montes after he had moved to third on a Merrell single, followed by a a Joe Genord base hit to score Merrell.
The Pirates (24-24, 4-14 American) used the long ball to get back in the game. A two-run shot by Eric Tyler cut the Bulls’ lead in half in the 6th inning. In the 8th and 9th, solo homers by Bryce Harman and Travis Watkins off USF reliever Andrew Perez tied the score.
The ECU rally spoiled a very good perfomance from Shane McClanahan. He pitched seven innings, allowing only two runs on five hits while striking out 13. He now has 91 strikeouts in 64.1 innings pitched for an eye-popping ratio of 12.7 K’s per nine innings.
USF put East Carolina under serious pressure in the 10th inning when Merrell led off with a triple. In perhaps a suicidal act, the Pirates intentionally walked Stunkel and Luke Borders to load the bases with no outs. Somehow, ECU almost got out of this monumental jam. Genord struck out, and pinch hitter Cameron Montgomery flew out to shallow center, not deep enough for Merrell to tag up. But with two outs, David Villar singled to right to bring home the winning run.
Sunday: USF 6, East Carolina 3
Last Saturday, the story of the game was Peter Strzelecki, simply for pitching at all. Today the story of the game was Peter Strzelecki, because he pitched a fantastic game. He gave the Bulls 8 1⁄3 innings and allowed just three hits and one earned run while striking out 10. (There were two unearned runs when his catcher dropped a strike three that would have ended the inning, followed by a Dwanya Williams-Sutton home run.)
USF staked him to a big early lead with five runs in the first inning. A Joe Genord RBI double put the Bulls on the board, and two-run singles by Dietrich and Montes made it 5-0. An RBI single by Borders made it 6-0 in the fourth inning and ended ECU starter Jake Agnos’s afternoon.
East Carolina may have fallen a long, long way from their #10 preseason ranking, but give them credit for never throwing in the towel. They again threatened late, pushing across a run in the ninth and bringing the tying run to the plate with one out. Fortunately Andrew Perez was able to shut the door by getting Watkins to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.
Up Next: At Florida
Strzelecki’s effort not only won USF a game on Sunday, but gave the bullpen a chance to recharge its batteries before Tuesday night’s showdown in Gainesville. Last year the Bulls led the then #1 Gators into the sixth inning before the bullpen had a complete meltdown and UF won 11-4. This year they should have everyone available to help out.
Sunday was also USF’s final home game of the season. They finish the regular season with eight on the road — league series at UConn and C., with midweek games at Florida and Jacksonville. Their next game in the area will be at The American tournament in Clearwater the week before Memorial Day.