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Despite a pair of gritty comebacks, the homestanding Barton College baseball team was unable to avoid being swept in an NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas three-game series over the weekend by nationally ranked archrival University of Mount Olive.
The No. 19-ranked Trojans, in opening conference play, followed Friday’s 16-4 romp in eight innings to win Saturday’s seven-inning opener on the Nixon Field diamond 7-6 and then escape 8-7 in the nine-inning finale.
In Saturday’s opener, the Bulldogs erased a 6-0 deficit to tie 6-6 but allowed an unearned but decisive run in the top of the seventh. In the game 2, Barton snuffed a 6-2 deficit and forged a 6-6 standoff in the bottom of the eighth. But the Trojans struck for two runs in the top of the ninth and squelched a Barton rally a run short of another deadlock in the bottom of the ninth.
Despite a squad that veteran head coach Carl Lancaster describes as “poor defensively, not good pitching and sporadic offensively,” Mount Olive departed 3-0 in the league and 13-3 overall. The Bulldogs fell to 1-5 and 7-14, respectively.
First-year Barton head coach Jim Chester declared he’s not big on moral victories but commented: “We obviously played better than we did Friday. I saw some good things. We were on the verge of doing some really good things. I am proud of these young men for playing their hearts out.”
Chester sent his only two established starting pitchers, senior right-hander Trent Fennell and junior right-hander Dylan Ward, to the mound against the Trojans. Both were shaky at the start and neither was involved in the decision.
The hard-throwing Fennell lasted five innings, allowing eight hits, six runs (five earned) and a walk while striking out six. In 4 2/3 innings, Ward was peppered for seven hits and six runs (four earned) while walking two and striking out five.
“Both were able to settle down,” Chester said. “Every time they go out, we think they’re going to give us a chance to win.”
Lancaster contended velocity in excess of 90 miles per hour wasn’t there for Fennell.
“We got on him pretty hard,” Mount Olive’s head coach noted. “Today, he was not throwing that hard. I don’t think he was ready when he went out there. About the third inning, he started bringing it a little more.
“His secondary stuff was what was beating us. We did a decent job of laying off but, once he got into a groove and was feeling it, he was pretty darned good. He’s really good.”
Barton capitalized on the wildness of starting Trojans pitcher Braxton Shetley to plate four runs in the fourth. Lancaster brought in right-handed closer Zach Vennaro in the fourth and the Bulldogs tied the score at 6-6 with two unearned runs against Vennaro in the sixth. Right fielder Troy Maslowski and shortstop Gatlin Pate each slapped run-scoring singles.
But in the seventh against Barton reliever Landry Moore, right fielder Nate Estes drew a one-out walk and scored the winning run on a two-out error. Vennaro then worked around third baseman Colby Warren’s single in the bottom of the seventh.
“I had to go to my closer for four innings to win the series,” Lancaster declared.
In the second game, the Trojans needed three pitchers to end the inning — but not before Barton plated four runs and knotted the score at 6-6.
Center fielder Hunter Little and Warren each singled. After a wild pitch, pinch hitter Lane Olive delivered a two-run single. Left fielder Rich Trifaro stroked an RBI double and second baseman Garrett Giddens drove in the final run with a grounder.
But a one-out walk started Barton reliever Warren’s downfall in the ninth. Drew Ellis and Chris Douglas each connected for RBI singles.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Bulldogs pushed across a run on Maslowski’s single, a walk and Little’s RBI single. But German Reyes, the fifth Trojans pitcher, responded with back-to-back strikeouts to end the game.
“That was a pretty good team we played on the other side,” Chester reasoned. “We showed a little bit of grit and proved, especially to the young guys, that we can play with anybody. We took a step in the right direction and this was just a great experience.”
Barton braces for a rugged week outside the conference at home against Francis Marion on Tuesday and No. 3-ranked Mercyhurst on Thursday.