In its first five years as a member of the Big East, the USF baseball team had never lost its conference-opening series.
That streak ended Sunday, with a 7-6 loss to West Virginia at the USF Baseball Stadium.
The Bulls (10-14, 1-2) spotted freshman starter Nick Gonzalez a 3-0 lead in the second inning, providing rare run support in a season of offensive struggles.
But West Virginia (16-10, 2-1) fought back immediately, scoring five runs in the top of the third inning. The Bulls trailed and couldn’t retake the lead for the rest of the game.
USF won Friday night’s opener 8-4 before losing 9-3 Saturday to set up the decisive rubber game.
“It’s disappointing (to lose the series) because we didn’t pitch good,” coach Lelo Prado said. “Today, we gave Nick three runs, and he didn’t pitch good. With the injuries we’ve got, we need those guys to step up.”
USF center fielder Chad Taylor, second baseman Peter Brotons and third baseman Jonathan Koscso each picked up an RBI in the third inning, building an early lead for the Bulls. The inning ended when Brotons was thrown out at home plate following Koscso’s double to left field.
The Mountaineers sent all nine batters to the plate in the third inning, scoring five runs off Gonzalez, who had previously retired six consecutive batters. West Virginia benefited from three hits in the inning – including a leadoff home run to straightaway center field by catcher Matt Malloy – and two walks.
After the Bulls scored a run in the fourth and WVU posted single runs in both the sixth and seventh innings, USF trailed by four runs at the seventh-inning stretch before a spell of two-out offense helped the Bulls pull within one run.
Following catcher Andrew Longley’s flyout to center and Brotons’ groundout to second, three consecutive Bulls reached base safely. Koscso doubled down the right-field line before left fielder Alex Mendez reached first base safely on an error. Both runners scored when shortstop Sam Mende doubled to left field.
With USF still trailing by one, Brotons led off the ninth inning with a single. Representing the potential game-tying run, pinch runner Anthony Diaz moved to second base on a Koscso bunt, but he was stranded there.
Strong performances from starting pitcher Randy Fontanez, first baseman Todd Brazeal and designated hitter Junior Carlin carried the Bulls to a Friday night win in front of 1,497 fans.
Fontanez pitched eight innings, allowing three earned runs and striking out six without surrendering a walk to improve his record to 2-2.
Brazeal sent home runs to left-center field in consecutive at-bats, going 3-for-4 on the night with four RBIs and two runs scored. Carlin drove in three runs of his own.
USF managed to tally 13 hits Saturday – one more than West Virginia – but managed only three runs, leaving 13 runners on base.
The Bulls trailed by four runs in the seventh inning when Mendez came up to bat with the bases loaded. Mountaineers starter Harrison Musgrave struck him out to end the inning and USF’s hope of a comeback. West Virginia scored three more runs in the next inning, effectively putting the game out of reach.
USF travels to Jacksonville to play North Florida on Wednesday night at 7 in the first of a six-game road trip. Fourteen of the Bulls’ next 18 games are on the road.