When Stetson junior K’shawn Smith rounded second base in the ninth inning Friday night and picked up third base coach Mark Leavitt, he was surprised to get a wave toward home.
Smith, who had reached on a two-out single in the ninth inning of a tie game with Northern Kentucky, took off for second on a 1-2 pitch from NKU’s Brett Cisper to freshman Kevin Fagan, who went with the pitch on the outside part of the plate,
smacking a single through the vacated left side of the infield.
Smith charged around third and slid in to the plate at about the same time as the ball arrived to Cody Kuzniczci, colliding with the Norse catcher and jarring the ball loose to score the winning run in a 3-2 Stetson victory.
The win for Stetson (24-26, 13-9) clinched a berth in the Atlantic Sun Tournament, which will be played at Melching Field in two weeks. The loss for the Norse (8-41, 3-19) continues a frustrating first season in Division I. NKU has now lost 10 straight games, seven of those by just one run.
Smith, who had two hits in the game, said he was surprised when he got the signal to go home.
“At first I was surprised, but we had talked a lot about putting pressure on the defense,” Smith said. “I figured that I might as well score. I thought we would have first and third with Darby (McCormick) and (Patrick) Mazeika coming up.”
Fagan, who also had two hits in the game, said the only thing on his mind when he got to the plate in the ninth was putting the bat on the ball.
“I just wanted to put it into play,” Fagan said. “Coach Dunn says that good things happen when you put the ball in play. I knew K’shawn was going on the hit-and-run and he is one of the fastest players on the team. Luckily the shortstop went over to cover when K’shawn took off and that opened up a hole. I peeked in and was a little surprised that he was running, but I was ecstatic when I got to second base.”
Hatters coach Pete Dunn said that Leavitt read the play correctly from the start.
“K’shawn had a full head of steam and Coach Leavitt read the ball that they didn’t quite get to it as quickly as they should,” Dunn said. “You have to send him in that situation. They threw the ball in to the shortstop because they anticipated him stopping at third. By that time it was too late. It wasn’t the most artistic win, but it was a win nonetheless.”
The run in the bottom of the ninth clinched the win, but it was the two runs Stetson scored in the eighth inning that gave the Hatters a chance. NKU starting pitcher Tim Clark had just one bad inning in his first seven. The Hatters loaded the bases against the lefty in the third, but Clark got both Mazeika and James Rasmussen to ground out to get out of the jam without allowing a run to score.
“We had the bases loaded with one out and Mazeika up and he got a little impatient and rolled over one,” Dunn said. “Then it looked like that might have been the best shot we had the whole game.”
Stetson starter Josh Powers was his normal dominant self again, allowing just one run on eight hits over the first eight innings while recording a career-high eight strikeouts. He retired the first 11 men he faced to start the game, but then surrendered three consecutive singles in the fourth to give NKU a 1-0 lead.
That is where the game stayed until the eighth when Stetson knocked Clark out of the game. With one out, McCormick and Mazeika delivered back-to-back singles. Reliever Brett Loeding came in and surrendered an RBI double down the right field line to Rasmussen to tie the game at 1-1. Garrett Russini followed with a ground ball to second to score Mazeika, giving Stetson a 2-1 lead.
Dunn said getting Clark out of the game was big for the Hatters.
“He was your typical soft lefty,” Dunn said. “If you don’t stay back and go the other way, that is why we hit so many fly balls because we were hitting off our front foot. We didn’t make a very good adjustment throughout the game. I wasn’t unhappy when they went to the pen, I can promise you that.”
Powers went back to the mound to start the ninth inning in search of just his second win of the season. His chance at getting that win on his own ended when Logan Spurlin, who had singled in the first run of the game, doubled into the left field corner to start the ninth. The Norse used a sacrifice bunt to move pinch-runner Zac Asman to third before Powers gave way to freshman Tyler Warmoth (4-2).
“Coach (Chris) Roberts came over and wanted to know if we wanted to go with (Warmoth) in the ninth,” Dunn said. “In retrospect, I probably should have done that. But, it wasn’t like Powers was tired and he was throwing the ball very well. He just gave up that leadoff double. Warmoth came in and got the punchout and went 0-2 on the next guy and it looked like we would pitch our way out, but he did a great job of fighting off pitches to get the hit.”
Brandon Wood fell behind Warmoth 0-2 on consecutive sliders, but battled back to even the count by spoiling two more quality breaking balls from the Stetson freshman. He finally got a pitch he could handle on the seventh pitch of the at bat and lined a single to center to score Asman with the tying run.
“You have to give them credit,” Dunn said. “To be down to your last strike, and their guy fouled off pitches and hung in there. I thought Warmoth made some really quality pitches, but he fouled them off before finally getting the hit.”
“Our guys came back and that was huge,” Dunn said. “We got those two hits after there were two outs with no one on. K’shawn got the hit to get it started. Whatever he is doing, he needs to keep doing it.”
The win alleviates any pressure the Hatters might have felt about getting into the A-Sun Tournament. Dunn said he is more interested in building momentum heading into that event.
“I don’t know if there was any pressure, but it is nice to know that you are in and there is not a gun to your head,” Dunn said. “The big thing now is to keep some momentum, keep winning, and take some momentum into the tournament. I’d like to keep winning this weekend and go to Gulf Coast with a chance to improve our seeding. We know we aren’t going to get an at large, so we just have to keep winning.”
The Hatters and Norse will continue their weekend series on Saturday night at Melching Field. The first pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.