By: Alex Crook, SMCGaels.com Correspondent
MORAGA, Calif. — The Saint Mary’s baseball team kicked off its West Coast Conference title defense in style Saturday, sweeping a doubleheader from Portland with a 7-5 win in the morning followed by a 6-5 win later in the day at Louis Guisto Field.
The Gaels’ pitching staff combined to strike out 19 Pilots with the brute of that coming between Cameron Neff on the front end of the doubleheader and Drew Strotman on the back end. The duo struck out six batters apiece.
Saint Mary’s (16-6, 2-0 WCC) concludes the series with the Pilots Sunday afternoon with a first pitch slated for 1 p.m. Fans can find coverage links for all games on SMCGaels.com.
The Gaels wasted no time getting out to an early lead in the opener as a Zach Kirtley RBI double and a pair of two-run hits from Jackson Thoreson and Joey Fiske put Saint Mary’s up 5-0 in the first two innings.
“We came out hot but cooled down in the middle innings,” said Fiske, who went 2 for 5 in the game and 5 for 10 in the doubleheader. “They put up four runs but we answered back. As long as we’re playing hard the whole game, it shouldn’t be close.”
Logan Steinberg went 2 for 3 with two singles in just his sixth start of the season to add to the offense, but it was the relief pitching that provided a cushion for Saint Mary’s to lean on.
“It’s big when we can get guys out of the bullpen who shut them down and give us a chance to come back,” Fiske added. “If you’re scoring runs while the other team is doing the same, you’re not getting anywhere. It allows us to come back.
After Portland put up four runs in a game-tying fifth inning, a double steal that scored Brett Rasso and an error that brought Steinberg home from second were the rest of the runs the Gaels needed.
Saint Mary’s bats got a late start in the nightcap, but got going in the fourth inning. Charles Zaloumis drove home two runs on a fourth-inning single that dropped softly into center field. Then Fiske extended his hit streak to five games with a single of his own through the right side to cut Portland’s lead to 4-3.
“We didn’t have good energy to begin with,” said Strotman, who moved to 3-0 on the year. “Coach Valenzuela told us to pick up the energy. We weren’t playing our style of baseball, which starts in the dugout. Everybody needs to be ready to go and be energized.”
The Gaels picked up the pace, but were helped by some late Portland errors. Two errant throws on what would have been routine groundouts advanced Fiske and Brett Rasso home to tie the game at five. Then a pinch-hit RBI single from freshman Ryan Novis later gave the Gaels their first lead.
Strotman’s relief performance hit a bump when Portland loaded the bases in the eighth inning, but Ken Waldichuk needed just four pitches to strike out the side and keep the win intact. Kevin Milam recorded his NCAA-leading ninth save to encapsulate a pristine pitching performance from the Gaels.
“We trust our pitchers,” Valenzuela said. “I feel like we have five or six starters who are capable of starting and relieving. It was good to see in both games that we can get some guys to get in there and fill some big innings late in the game.”
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