MORAGA, Calif. -- After throwing 6 2/3 innings that at times looked close to unhittable, Saint Mary's freshman pitcher Cameron Neff admitted he'd been waiting to take the mound at Louis Guisto Field for quite some time.
That energy showed in a big way Saturday as the Palma High product gave his team a chance to win and the Gaels responded, executing on offense and getting the clutch hits needed to collect a 5-2 win over Portland on day three of the Gael Invitational in Moraga.
With the win, Saint Mary's improves to 3-4. Portland falls to 2-4. The game was a non-conference matchup despite both the Gaels and Pilots being members of the West Coast Conference. They'll play a three-game WCC series in Portland in late March.
Neff toed the slab Saturday looking not only to impress his home fans but also looking to prove that his first start, a loss at New Mexico State, was more a case of nerves than anything.
He made that point loud and clear right from the start against Portland. Neff struck out five in the first three innings, with the only blip on the radar coming when a Turner Gill single plated an unearned run for the Pilots.
That lead turned out to be short-lived. Anthony Gonsolin continued to show why he's earned a spot at the top of the lineup, this time hitting in the No. 2 hole and bashing a triple to right-center to lead off the fourth. Collin Ferguson made the productive out behind him, scoring Gonsolin with a groundout to tie the score at 1.
Neff battled on, matching Portland starter Austin Kelly zero for zero until the Gaels broke through to give their freshman a lead. Darian Ramage worked a leadoff walk and Connor Hornsby bunted him to second. Gonsolin grounded out, moving Ramage to third with Ferguson coming to the plate.
Portland turned to southpaw Brandon Snyder to set up a lefty on lefty matchup but that didn't bother the All-WCC preseason selection as Ferguson took a 1-1 pitch back up the middle, dropping one in shallow center to score Ramage and give Saint Mary's the lead. Anthony Villa followed with a double to right field that scored Ferguson and by the time the inning was over, Saint Mary's led 3-1.
Neff departed in the seventh after allowing the Pilots to cut the lead in half at 3-2. Brad Nease made sure the freshman would stay in the win column, inducing an inning-ending pop-out by Gill and preserving the one-run lead. Neff's final line was a good one, as he scattered seven hits, allowed two runs (one earned), walked one and struck out eight.
"The first start I was a little nervous, I'd say. I came out a little tentative. I made sure I came out today and really attacked the zone," Neff said. "It was fun because I've been looking forward to it all fall. It's nice that all the work I put in paid off."
The Gaels' offense gave Nease a little room to breathe with two more runs in the seventh and again it was two-out hitting that did the trick.
Ramage brought pinch-runner Dalton Frize home with an RBI single and Connor Hornsby got one through the left side to score Ramage, giving the Gaels the 5-2 lead. Nease finished off 2.1 scoreless innings of relief and Saint Mary's picked up its second win in three days on home soil.
"It started on the mound with Cameron Neff. He threw a great game," Saint Mary's coach Eric Valenzuela said. "For a freshman to come back after the weekend he had in Las Cruces shows a lot. He came back pounding the zone and we got some big two-out hits. We call them two-out goldens. We got a couple of them today. Ferguson's came on a left-on-left. They brought in the lefty and that's always a tough matchup but he stayed inside the ball and got a base hit. We executed today and that's why we won."
Saint Mary's wraps up the weekend Sunday with a 10 a.m. game against Kansas State. The two met Friday with the Wildcats picking up their first win of the season thanks to a 9-4 victory. UC Davis and Portland will play at 2 p.m. in the final game of the eight-game, four-day weekend at the Guisto.