Its odds of playoff contention already hanging by a thread, the Shippensburg University baseball team was in dire need of a series sweep versus West Chester University, Thursday and Friday.
Game 1 looked promising. Redshirt-sophomore Kiernan Higgins fired a complete game. Junior Ben Werkhesier cleared the left field fence on a fourth-inning three-run home run.
Momentum was in the Raiders’ (15-17, 13-15 PSAC East) favor following a 5-1 opening-game victory.
But if the Golden Rams (17-9, 17-9 PSAC East) had any say in the fate of the next three games, they were going to make sure the pendulum swung their way. And that it did.
Over the course of Games 2, 3 and 4, WCU carried the mantel, winning by scores of 4-3, 11-8 and 14-2, seemingly ending the Raiders’ chances of a postseason berth.
Higgins’ (4-4) start Thursday was one for the ages. Tossing his second complete game in a Raiders uniform, Higgins squandered the Golden Rams’ lineup, limiting the Eastern Division powerhouse to a pair of hits, an unearned run and fanned 12 in the process. The 12 ring ups — which tied his career-high — marked the third time this season he has reached double-digit strikeouts.
Off the rubber, Higgins received some help from the batter’s box as the SU bats tallied eight knocks. Outside of Werkheiser’s three-run blast, the Raiders scratched across runs on an Andrew Chronister single and a Lake Lloyd sacrifice fly. Both runs were plated in the second inning.
Transitioning to the nightcap, the SU starters saw similar success, but hitting up and down the lineup was held to a minimum.
Graduate student Kyle Lysy (4-3) remained prominent on the bump, going six innings, scattering seven knocks on three earned runs, and striking out seven. He also issued three free passes. However, once the Raiders turned to the bullpen, that is when things started taking a turn for the worst.
Freshman Austen Labarre — who garnered the loss — was tacked for an RBI-single in the top of seventh, the deciding factor in the Game 2 loss. He pitched 2/3 of an inning, conceding two hits to compliment the earned run.
At the dish, the Raiders mustered five hits, all three runs coming in the bottom half of the sixth. Freshman Jackson LoBianco tallied the lone extra-base knock, an RBI double. Also contributing to the sixth-frame cause was graduate student JuJu Cason and Werkheiser, both plating runs on RBI singles.
In Friday’s game action, the SU bats sprung early but slowly began to fade as the day went on. The pitching staff also struggled late as both teams endured wind gusts pushing 50 mph. However, the Golden Rams never seemed to mind the treacherous weather.
Cason opened the Game 3 scoring with a leadoff solo home run to right field. Sophomore Justin Darden and freshman Morgan Wyatt kept the train rolling, each plating runs on singles, giving SU the quick 3-0 edge.
WCU charged back the next four frames, teeing freshman southpaw Kaleb Sophy for seven earned runs (eight runs total). LoBianco brought a run in on a sixth-inning walk, while sophomore Tony Vavaroustos doubled home three Raiders moments later, SU clawing back and tying the game at eight.
However, a Keith Flaherty three-run jack in the bottom of the sixth sealed the deal. Sophy’s line would end at five innings of work, permitting 10 hits across eight earned runs, five base-on-balls and whiffing four. Sophomore Noah Nabholz tossed the final inning which he was chalked up for two earned runs on two knocks.
Hoping to turn the tables in Game 4, the Golden Rams put a shellacking on the Raiders, cruising to a 14-2 win. With freshman Gabe Stotler unavailable, SU relied on four different pitchers on the back end of the twin bill.
Freshman Ethan Miller received his first career start, lasting a mere 1 1/3 innings. The Greencastle, Pennsylvania, native coughed up seven earned runs on four hits and walked three. Nabholz relieved Miller to stop the bleeding, granting five earned runs himself in 2 2/3 innings on the mound.
Freshman Chris Douglass and LoBianco combined for the final two stanzas, Douglass admitting two runs and LoBianco tossing the one-inning shutout with two strikeouts.
In the batter’s box, redshirt-freshman Andres Garcia had himself an evening, sporting a 2-for-3 line, including a solo homer to right field and a two-bagger. The round-tripper, which came in the third inning, was Garcia’s first of his collegiate career. Vavaroustos notched the other lone RBI on a ground out.
With the conclusion to the regular season nearing, the Raiders sport one last home-and-home series in their 2021 campaign. SU travels to Bloomsburg University Friday, before returning to Fairchild Field Saturday to wrap up the season. First pitches from Husky territory are slated for noon and 2:30 p.m.