It was senior night at Melching Field on Saturday, but a pair of juniors stole the show as the Hatters downed Northern Kentucky 8-2 to win their sixth consecutive Atlantic Sun Conference series.
The win for Stetson (25-26, 14-9) moved the Hatters within two games of first place in the A-Sun race. Stetson is tied with ETSU for fourth place behind co-leaders Mercer and North Florida, with Florida Gulf Coast in third one game out of first.
The loss for Northern Kentucky was the 11th straight for the Norse, who are now 8-42 overall in their first season in Division I, 3-20 in their first year in the Atlantic Sun.
The Hatters will try to pick up their first series sweep of the year on Sunday. The series finale has been moved up one hour and will start at noon. There will be a 4 p.m. curfew on the game due to NKU’s travel schedule.
It was juniors Austin Perez (7-1) and K’shawn Smith who stole the show on Saturday. Perez was perfect on the mound for the first five innings and allowed just one run, a solo homer by Josh Myers leading off the sixth, on two hits over seven total innings of work. He walked one and struck out eight.
Smith continued his hot hitting, getting three hits in the game, including a double, and scoring two runs.
Hatters coach Pete Dunn said the combination of the pitching of Perez with some early inning offensive production made the game much easier to watch.
“AP gave us just what we needed tonight,” Dunn said. “I thought our hitters did a good job early and scored in the first three innings. When you get up 5-0 and AP is throwing as well as he was, you feel pretty good.”
Dunn said he also did not give the fact that Perez was perfect through the first five innings a second thought.
“It was too early in five innings to worry about a perfect game or a no hitter,” Dunn said. “If he had gotten to the seventh or eighth, then I might have started thinking about it. I knew he had a perfect game, but those are too far away in the fifth inning because there are just so many things that can happen. We just needed a solid performance, and we got that out of him.”
Perez said he realized something was up in the dugout before he took the mound in the sixth inning.
“I realized something was going on because no one was talking to me in the dugout,” Perez said. “Everyone knows that I can’t shut up, so that was odd. I was just trying to get outs.”
The first pitch slider that Myers hit out of the park was a pitch Perez would like to have had back.
“It was the wrong pitch,” Perez said. “It was a slider. I was trying to steal a strike, thinking that he wouldn’t swing at it. He swung pretty hard and hit it and it got caught up in the wind.”
The sixth inning was the only inning in which the Norse were able to reach base against Perez. They followed the homer with a single to center by Caleb Lonkard, who was thrown out trying to steal. Perez followed that by issuing his only walk of the night before recording a strikeout to end the frame.
He came back for the seventh inning and retired the Norse in order before being lifted.
The Hatters had no such trouble against NKU starter Aric Harris (1-6). Stetson scored twice in the first on a two-run single by Konner Lutz, added a single run in the second with Smith scored on a ground out by Darby McCormick, and then added two more in the third on Smith’s two-run double.
Stetson finished the night with 18 hits, their second highest single game total of the year. Every single Hatter who had a plate appearance in the game, all nine starters and two players off the bench, had at least one hit in the game.
That offensive barrage produced a single run in the fifth inning off reliever Cody Cooper on a single by Kevin Fagan, and two in the seventh on a run-scoring single by Smith and an RBI double by Patrick Mazeika. Four of the eight runs in the game for Stetson came with two outs in an inning.
“You need to put some runs on the board with two out, and we have not been very good at doing that this year,” Dunn said. “We have had a lot of scoring opportunities with two outs, but we have just never been able to make quality contact or put the ball in play hard. Tonight was a good indicator that, if we can do that, especially at the bottom of the order, then we can generate some runs.”
“It was a good win tonight,” Dunn said. “We have to get greedy tomorrow. We haven’t swept anyone all year. We have done a nice job the last six weeks by getting two out of three, but we need to sweep tomorrow and get greedy.”
Perez agreed with his coach.
“We know we are in the tournament, but we want to finish off this weekend and go into next weekend and see what we can do,” Perez said. “We want to get the best seed we can. We can definitely use the momentum going into the tournament because we are going to have to string four or five wins together to win it.”