GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Every time Kevin Merrell had played for the USF baseball team this season, he hit leadoff. But before the Bulls’ first NCAA Tournament game against Bethune-Cookman, USF head coach Mark Kingston moved Duke Stunkel, Jr. into the leadoff spot of his batting order.
How it paid off.
Stunkel went 4-for-6, including a big two-run homer in the second inning, to pace a 9-1 USF rout of the Wildcats in the opening game of the Gainesville Regional on Friday afternoon. Stunkel also stole a base and scored three times.
“I was just trying to lift the ball in the air,” said the USF center fielder about his home run. “Coach always preaches, ‘try and lift and drive the ball’ and I think it was an 0-1 count. I took a changeup trying to take the ball the other way and it caught the barrel and it flew out.”
Said Kingston about the lineup change: “I thought our offense needed a little spark. We had been not quite as good as I thought we could or should be for the last three to four weeks. So I just thought Duke could spark us at the top, move Kevin down to the “two” and flip-flop three and four as well. And they all seemed to be comfortable in those roles.”
It was nearly the largest shutout ever in an NCAA tournament game for USF, but a solo shot by the Wildcats Chase DiBonis in the ninth spoiled the shutout bid. It was the largest NCAA victory for the Bulls in an NCAA Tournament since a 12-3 win over North Carolina State in this same McKethan Stadium in Gainesville in 1996. (USF’s only postseason shutout was 8-0 over Florida in their NCAA debut in 1982.)
The Bulls (42-17) got to Bethune starter Anthony Maldonado early, scoring twice in both the first and second innings. A bases-loaded walk and a sacrifice fly by Coco Montes got the scoring started in the first. Stunkel’s second-inning homer forced Maldonado from the game.
“I thought we played really well today. I thought it looked like we were able to recharge the batteries this week and we were good in all areas of the game,” Kingston said. “Offensively I thought we swung the bats really well, with great discipline.”
USF also scored twice in both the fourth and sixth innings. David Villar doubled home Stunkel in the fourth to make it 6-0, and Chris Chatfield crushed a two-run homer to right-center field in the sixth to push the lead to nine runs.
Bulls starter Phoenix Sanders hadn’t pitched in nine days, and the rest looked good on him. The senior right-hander and Bulls ace cruised through seven innings, scattering five hits while striking out seven and not conceding a run.
“Fastball command out of the first I think was great too. Located away, which is kind of the plan we wanted with these guys,” said Sanders. “Big, free-swingers, so develop the outside corner and again, you’ve got them guessing away. You can spin ‘em, go in, and again all four pitches were working today.”
USF advances to the winners bracket of the double-elimination regional, awaiting the winner of the game between host and #1 seed Florida Gators and fourth-seeded Marist. The Gators and Red Foxes are scheduled to play at 7:00 p.m. this evening, but will likely be delayed because the field is presently quite wet; they were rolling the tarp out while USF began their post-game celebration.
The losers of tonight’s game will face Bethune-Cookman at noon tomorrow, while the Bulls and the winner tonight will play at 7:00 p.m.