Baseball: Owls sweep LIU Brooklyn behind strong starting pitching

Team now has won its first seven games

FAU+left+fielder+Christian+Dicks+follows+through+on+a+swing+during+Sunday%27s+game+between+the+Owls+and+LIU+Brooklyn.+Max+Jackson+%7C+Staff+Photographer

FAU left fielder Christian Dicks follows through on a swing during Sunday's game between the Owls and LIU Brooklyn. Max Jackson | Staff Photographer

Brendan Feeney, Sports Editor

The No. 18 ranked Florida Atlantic baseball team helped give coach John McCormack as little work as possible in his season debut as his team swept Long Island University at Brooklyn over the weekend, improving to 7-0.

McCormack — who missed last weekend’s season opener because of medical reasons — said it was “without a doubt” good to be back on the field. “Kind of been looking forward to this for some time now, nice to be back in our element,” McCormack said.

His first coaching job of the season was made easier by sophomore pitcher David McKay.

McKay struck out the first six Blackbird batters he faced to begin Friday’s game, part of the 14-strikeout total he would throw in his seven innings of work. He allowed one run off of two hits, notching his second win of the season.

“I didn’t want to come out,” McKay said. “I begged to stay but [coach] said I was at my pitch count [limit].”

“He threw great,” said McCormack, who had no idea until after the game that his pitcher recorded 14 strikeouts. McCormack noted there was no debate over taking McKay because of pitch count.

McKay wasn’t the only starting pitcher to find success against the Blackbirds this weekend. Senior Brandon Rhodes also collected his second win of the season after throwing five shutout innings.

Though McCormack said the original plan was for Rhodes to throw more innings, the Owls’ offense was so potent — scoring 14 runs in the first four innings — he decided it was a good time for his bullpen to gain some work.

Sophomore Marc Stewart continued the strong starting pitching on Sunday, throwing six shutout innings to extend his scoreless streak to 12 innings to start the season.

Junior first baseman Esteban Puerta led the Owls’ offense, which scored 26 runs over the weekend. Puerta — Conference USA’s reigning hitter of the week — continued his hot start to the season by collecting six hits and seven RBIs against LIU Brooklyn, including two home runs in Saturday’s game.

“I can’t really explain it,” Puerta said of his start to the season. “Sometimes the ball looks really good, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m on the good side of that.”

Junior third baseman Austin Langham found success as well over the weekend, reaching base 10 times. He scored five runs and knocked in four runs all while hitting in the nine-hole.

“I know it’s a small sample size, but he’s hitting like .600,” McCormack said of Langham. “He works the count, he has good at bats, it’s nice having him down there.”

Hitter of the Weekend: Esteban Puerta: Hit 6-for-11 with seven RBIs, three runs scored, two walks and two home runs.

Pitcher of the Weekend: Starting Pitchers: The only starter to give up a run was McKay, who recorded 14 strikeouts over seven innings. Rhodes and Stewart combined for 11 shutout innings over Saturday and Sunday. Rhodes and McKay each picked up their second win of the season, while Stewart received a no-decision.

“Goat” of the Weekend: Christian Dicks: Hit 1-for-12 with three strikeouts.

“[Dicks is] in a little bit of a rut,” McCormack said. “We’ll keep rolling him out there … he’s earned some trust and faith.”

The Owls will travel to Jupiter, Florida on Wednesday, March 2, to take on Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals. Former Owl Austin Gomber will be on the mound for the Cardinals, facing his old team and coach.

Here’s a recap of each game:

Game One: LIU Brooklyn 3, FAU 4

McKay was the story of the first game, collecting 14 strikeouts through seven innings. However, he almost didn’t receive the win.

With the Owls holding a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning, sophomore pitcher Mark Nowatnick gave up two runs and allowed the potential tying run to reach third base with two outs before senior Devon Carr came in to record the third out. Junior Cameron Ragsdale was able to successfully shut down the Blackbirds in the ninth inning, collecting his first save of the season and the Owls’ first home win.

Langham led off the third inning with a single to center field before scoring the game’s first run three batters later after a double by junior CJ Chatham. The following inning, Langham singled in senior right fielder Brett Lashley and sophomore catcher Gunnar Lambert.

The Owls scored their fourth run of the game in the fifth inning when Chatham drove in senior center fielder Billy Endris, who led off the inning with a triple.

Langham reached base three times in the game, with two singles and a walk. He added two RBIs and one run scored.

Game Two: LIU Brooklyn 2, FAU 17

The Owls’ offense exploded in the second game of the weekend, scoring 17 runs — six more than their previous season high recorded on Feb. 19.

The first run of the game almost didn’t happen, as the Owls had the bases loaded for Puerta with one out. Puerta hit a sacrifice fly to center field, scoring junior Stephen Kerr less than a second before Chatham was called out trying to advance to third.

The following inning saw three FAU runners cross home plate, beginning with Lashley and freshman catcher Tyler Frank after a single by Langham. He would score one batter later after a Kerr single.

Puerta hit his second homerun of the season in the third inning, extending the Owls’ lead to five, before hitting a three-run home run in the following inning, part of a nine run FAU fourth inning.

Rhodes was relieved after five shutout innings as McCormack was able to gain mound time for freshmen Kyle Marman and Eric Keating and sophomores Alex House and Austin Kirksey. Marman and Kirksey eached allowed one run in their lone inning of work.

Kerr — who recorded three hits in his first 21 at bats this season and committed three errors in Friday’s game — broke out of his early season slump on Saturday, collecting three hits and four RBIs.

“It’s nice to see Kerr get some hits,” McCormack said. “Maybe that’ll get him going.”

Game Three: LIU Brooklyn 1, FAU 5

Stewart took the mound for Sunday’s series finale coming off six shutout innings in his last outing against Mississippi State where he only allowed two hits. Sunday’s game would be much more of the same.

Stewart gave up two Blackbird hits in six shutout innings of work. He didn’t allow his first hit until there were two outs in the fifth inning.

The Owls were held scoreless in the first three innings until Puerta led off the fourth with a walk and scored on a triple by junior designated hitter Sean Labsan. FAU held that 1-0 lead until the seventh inning when the Blackbirds were able to load the bases with one out against junior pitcher Colyn O’Connell.

O’Connell was able to get out of the inning only allowing one run.

FAU answered in the bottom half of the seventh. Kerr, Chatham and Dicks all reached base, loading the bases with one out for its hottest hitter.

Puerta would come through by hitting a double down the left field line to score Kerr and Chatham on the play and capture a 3-1 lead. Dicks was rounding third and would have scored, but the ball left the field of play and a ground-rule double was called, sending him back to third base.

He scored one batter later, thanks to a Labsan sacrifice fly.

Endris knocked in Langham for the Owls’ fifth and final run of the game in the eighth inning.

Brendan Feeney is the sports editor of the University Press. To contact him regarding this or other stories, he can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter.