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USF escapes sweep despite mounting injuries, inconsistent pitching

Freshman outfielder Jackson Mayo hit his seventh home run of the season on Saturday against the Memphis Tigers. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Two games of pitching trouble left USF baseball on the brink of another conference sweep, but adjustments in the lineup on Saturday paid off as the Bulls managed to win the series finale against Memphis.

Another issue that troubled the Bulls is the injuries that have rattled the team lately, with sophomore Drew Brutcher, redshirt sophomore Ben Rozenblum and redshirt junior Nick Gonzalez all missing some time over the weekend. 

For the third straight conference series, USF (20-16,  2-7 AAC) lost the first two games of the weekend. Even with the win over the Tigers (15-16, 3-6 AAC), the team has won just twice in its last 11 games.

Memphis 8, USF 2

On Thursday night, redshirt junior Orion Kerkering started well on the mound, pitching four innings and allowing just one run, but the Memphis offense came alive in the fifth.

Holding a one-run lead, the Tigers tallied six hits and seven runs, including a pair of doubles and a two-run homer, breaking the game wide open. There were no defensive errors to blame either, just effective hitting by Memphis.

The remainder of the pitching staff behind Kerkering held the Tigers to four hits, but the USF offense couldn’t catch up.

It took the Bulls five innings to get on the scoreboard with an RBI single by sophomore infielder Matt Ruiz and an RBI double from redshirt junior infielder Nick Gonzalez.

Pitching was one of USF’s strongest attributes before conference play, but one poor inning put Thursday’s game out of reach. Kerkering was saddled with the loss, dropping his record to 4-4 this season.

Memphis 7, USF 3

Redshirt junior Brad Lord took the mound Friday and gave up an early lead, allowing two runs in the first inning. He would be yanked from the game after five innings, in which he allowed four runs and struck out five.

Assistant coach Karsten Whitson thought Lord was just a bit unlucky against the Tigers, praising his control but admitting the Tigers were slightly better this time around.

“Brad throws a ton of strikes and that’s the thing,” Whitson said. “As a pitcher, when you’re in the [strike zone] a lot, you’re going to give up hits. When I go back and look at some stuff, he really doesn’t get hit hard. Some balls aren’t bouncing his way when he’s pitching right now, so he’s got to keep working.”

Redshirt sophomore Hunter Mink finished the game in relief but was tagged for seven hits and three runs while the Bulls’ offense attempted to play catch up.

Although the bats did significantly better than recent performances with 10 hits on Friday, they still labored to bring runners home, leaving 12 on base.

The Bulls managed a couple of runs in the third and fourth to cut the deficit to 3-2, but the Tigers stayed hot in the batter’s box.

An eighth-inning RBI single from sophomore catcher Nelson Rivera failed to start a late rally and left the score 7-3 in the end. 

USF 9, Memphis 2

Things took a turn on Saturday in favor of the Bulls. The mounting injuries forced several changes in the batting order, and the adjustment paid off. 

USF came to the plate with the aim of scoring early. A two-run triple from freshman Sonny Rao in the bottom of the third was followed by an RBI single from redshirt sophomore infielder Carmine Lane, putting the Bulls up 3-2.

Lane returned in the fourth with another RBI single, but the difference-maker came from freshman outfielder Jackson Mayo. He launched his seventh home run of the season to center field in the fourth. The three-run blast gave the Bulls a 7-2 lead.

The Bulls tagged on additional insurance runs in the sixth and eighth innings to take a 9-2 lead while the USF pitching staff kept the Tigers quiet.

Redshirt sophomore Ethan Brown gave up just two runs in four innings pitched, the latest in a run of quality outings that started against UCF on April 3 and continued versus Tulane on April 10. 

“One of the bright spots so far has been Ethan Brown, kind of stepping in and filling in that extra starter spot for us,” Whitson said. “His last three starts in conference have been pretty good. He’s given us a chance.”

Brown’s emergence is promising in the absence of redshirt sophomore Jack Jasiak, who is out indefinitely due to an injury to his throwing arm, according to coach Billy Mohl.

The Bulls will need the added stability in the rotation and more offensive performances like Saturday as they hit the second half of the conference schedule after a midweek nonconference game at Florida A&M on Tuesday.

First pitch against the Rattlers is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. USF’s next conference series starts on Friday at Cincinnati.