Site: High Point, N.C. (Truist Point)
Game One Score: UNCG 6, High Point 5
W: Austin Parsley (1-0) L: Carter Sheppard (0-1)
Game Two Score: High Point 4, UNCG 3
W: Chris Apecechea (2-0), L: Jared Mathewson (0-1), S: CJ Neese (1)
Records: HPU 2-4, UNCG 5-2
Next HPU Event: Friday, March 5 — vs. Winthrop (Williard Stadium, High Point, N.C.), 4 p.m.
HIGH POINT, N.C. – The High Point University baseball team split its first doubleheader of the season with a 4-3 victory after a 6-5 loss to UNCG at Truist Point in downtown High Point on Sunday (Feb. 28). The day was essentially a dress rehearsal for the start of conference play next week as each Big South weekend series will be a single game followed by a doubleheader.
“18 innings is a lot of baseball. It was a long day at the ballpark but our guys competed really, really well,” head coach Craig Cozart said when the day was done. “We’ve played six really tight ballgames this year. There’s been no margin for error in any pitch that we’ve thrown or in a single play we’ve made or a single at bat. This is going to toughen and harden our guys heading into conference play and I’m proud of the way we were competing today. We made one error all weekend and competed really well on the mound. UNCG is a quality club and they’re going to do good things this year. I’m never happy with losing two out of three but I’m proud that we were able to get a win, on the back-end of a doubleheader especially.”
With both games ending as one-run affairs, all six of High Point’s games so far this season have been decided by two runs or fewer. HPU has been in every game until the final pitch, having the tying run at the plate or on base in all four of its losses over the first two weekends.
“This is what baseball is supposed to be like,” Cozart said of the team’s ability to keep games close to start the season. “Anybody can go out when you’re rolling and up by eight or nine and play in that condition, but to play in 54 innings so far this year with no margin for error in anything that we’re doing should give our guys a lot of confidence. It’s definitely hardening them and that’s what it’s going to take for us to make a run in the Big South.”
Left fielder Joe Johnson continued his strong start to the 2021 campaign with two hits in both games on Sunday to bring his season total up to 10 hits already. He recorded multiple hits in all three games against UNCG to bring his team-leading total up to four multi-hit games on the year. He’s also now safely hit in all six games this season and in his last 13 stretching back to last season, extending his career-long hitting streak.
Catcher Blake Sutton got the start behind the dish in both games of the doubleheader and had a base hit in both, including a double in each game. He also showed off his arm from behind the plate by throwing out a runner trying to swipe second in the later game of the two.
Peyton Carr totaled three hits over the two games and Brady Pearre and Cameron Irvine each had two hits in the second game of the day.
Just like Saturday night, both teams scored in the first inning of the earlier game, with the Panthers getting on the board first as the road team. Pearre started things off with a single to left on the first pitch of the game and advanced to third when Johnson ripped a double down the line in right. Pearre came around on the next at bat when Travis Holt grounded out to short for the RBI. Johnson later touched home when Irvine singled to center, with the ball taking a large bounce off the turf and going over the centerfielder’s head and to the wall, putting Irvine on third, which he never made it past.
UNCG got one back in the bottom of the first after a pair of walks to start the game and a single to right. The Spartans tied it up and took the lead in the bottom of the third with a three-run inning to open a 4-2 lead. UNCG loaded the bases and two came around to score to take the lead on an RBI single to left and then a third run came in when High Point relieve Carter Sheppard appeared to trip on the turf during his delivery to balk in a run. Sheppard settled down after that point, facing only 10 batters through the next three innings.
High Point answered back in the sixth inning, tying the game after the Spartans went to the bullpen. Irvine drew a one-out walk and made it to third when Sutton doubled to the gap in left. Carr singled to center to score Irvine two pitches later and moved Sutton 90 feet away from scoring as well. Sutton tried to come home on a grounder to third to give the Panthers the lead but the third baseman went to the plate with his throw to get Sutton and keep the game tied.
It didn’t stay tied for long as HPU pushed the go-ahead run across in the next inning when Holt picked up his second RBI of the game to have the first multi-RBI game of the season for the Purple and White. Pearre ripped a leadoff double to left-center on a 2-0 count and then came around to return the lead back to High Point when Holt singled through the right side of the infield.
UNCG flipped the script back in favor of the Spartans in the next half-inning, scoring two in the bottom of the seventh to take the lead for good. A leadoff walk advanced to second on a deep fly out to center and then came around to tie things up on a double down the left-field line. Runners were on the corners after a grounder got past the Panthers’ first baseman and the winning run came around to score on a sac fly one batter later.
High Point looked like it might have a rally saved up late in the ninth, loading the bases with two outs. Ryan Russell had his first plate appearance of the season pinch hitting in the ninth and took an 0-2 pitch through the left side of the infield with one out. Johnson singled in the same spot and then Holt drew a walk to juice the bases but a shallow fly to right ended game one in a 6-5 victory for UNCG to give the Spartans the series.
The Panthers opened the scoring in the first inning again in game two, with Johnson scoring on a wild pitch. He singled through the shift on the left side of the infield with one out and then stole second before taking third on a groundout to the first baseman. Johnson later came home on the wild pitch on ball four to Sam Zayicek who also stole second, but couldn’t get any further to add an insurance run.
HPU ended up getting the insurance run and then one more in the next inning, putting up two for a 3-0 lead. Sutton started the inning off with a single to right and took third on a single by Carr. The Purple and White continued to stay aggressive on the basepaths in the second game and put on the hit-and-run but the line drive from Cole Singsank hit Carr as he was headed towards second, retiring Carr and negating a potential RBI single for Singsank that could’ve scored Sutton.
Sutton didn’t have to wait too much longer to cross the plate as High Point pulled the double steal, sending Singsank to second and Sutton home once the catcher threw the ball, with both sliding in safely. Singsank then stole third and came around to score on a passed ball on ball four to Pearre to extend the Panther lead to three.
The score remained 3-0 until the fourth inning when the Spartans tied it up with one swing of the bat. A one-out double and a walk to the next batter put two runners on and one out later UNCG sent one over the fence in left to tie it up at 3-3.
High Point took the lead back in the next inning, taking advantage of three hit batters to bring the decisive run around. Johnson and Holt were hit in back-to-back at bats and the bases became loaded when Irvine reached after a bad throw to first from the third baseman. The bases loaded was key for the Panthers as Sutton was hit by the second pitch he saw in his at bat to bring home a run and give HPU the led that it never lost.
Chris Apecechea came in to pitch the fifth inning and gave up one hit and one walk in the fifth before retiring the next 10 batters he faced. He picked up four strikeouts along the way to match his career-best while his four innings pitched and 60 pitches thrown are both career-highs.
No strikeout was bigger than his last, as he got the Spartans’ cleanup hitter on strikes to end the eighth inning. Cozart came out to talk to the graduate student with two outs and looked to consider bringing in closer CJ Neese for the four-out save but decided to trust the veteran, proving to be the correct decision. Apecechea got the UNCG batter out in front of a breaking ball and was mobbed by his teammates on his return to the dugout after a career performance on the hill.
“[Apecechea] competes. He just absolutely competes,” Cozart said of his reliever after the game. “He can throw any pitch from the top or from the side at any point in the count and he does a great job of mixing things up and competing. He’s relentless. He doesn’t have plus-stuff; he has plus-mentality, and that’s what makes him successful and that’s why our guys respect him and love playing behind him.”
Neese came on for the ninth inning and got the save, stranding the tying run at third with his only strikeout of the inning and fifth of the season. Apecechea was credited with the win, giving him both of High Point’s wins this season and the only two of his career with the Panthers so far. It was also the first save opportunity of Neese’s career and he came through when needed to earn the save.
High Point can now set its sights on conference play, with the Eagles of Winthrop making the trip up to Williard Stadium next weekend. The two teams will meet Friday at 4 p.m. and then will play two in a doubleheader on Saturday with first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m.