By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU senior pitcher Connor Reeves winds up for his deliver vs. Keystone College. March 7. Emma Reider photo
The Salisbury University baseball pitching staff has had their ups and downs in recent years. In the last four seasons, the team’s best ERA came in Head Coach Troy Brohawn’s first season in 2015, at a 3.86 mark.
That was the last time the program had a team ERA under 4.00. Now deep into the 2018 season, the SU staff has their ERA at 3.45. While the entire staff may not be deep, the Sea Gulls do possess a trio of work horses as starters. That trio shined on the mound in the first games of the CAC Tournament on Friday and Saturday.
In a new conference tournament format, the top-seeded Sea Gulls hosted fourth-seeded Frostburg State and sixth-seeded York College (Pa.) in a double-elimination two-day tournament. The remaining team receives a berth in the following weekend’s CAC Championship series.
SU faced Frostburg State once and York twice over the weekend, winning all three games in order to advance to the championship series. However, it was not just that they advanced, but the way that SU did.
Outscoring their opponents 25-3 over the two-day stretch, the SU defense and pitching were something special for Coach Brohawn.
“When you pitch like we did, and we went 27 innings [giving up] three runs and made one error in those three games, that’s something that we preach from day one of practice, pitching and defense will keep you in every game,” Coach Brohawn said.
“When you pitch and play defense like that, you’re gonna be in every single game and we couldn’t be prouder of the guys. They bust their hump every day in practice and we put them through a lot.”
SU senior left-hander Austin Heenan got the start on the mound for the first game vs. Frostburg State on Friday. Aided by two early SU runs in the first inning, the Sea Gulls gave Heenan some room to work with early on.
“I know Heenan is a big strikeout guy,” sophomore catcher Matt Padeway said. “When we went against Frostburg, we worked in inner half of the plate, the same thing that we did the last time that we played them. He dominated them two times.”
Those two runs were all Heenan really needed, going the full nine innings for his second complete game of the season while giving up no runs in the 7-0 win. The Melfa, Va. native also recorded his fourth 10-plus strikeout-performance of the season while allowing only four hits and four walks.
In a mirror score line in the final game of Friday’s slate, senior pitcher Connor Reeves received the start. Just like Heenan, Reeves threw a complete game shutout. It was his third complete game of the season and also his fourth 10-plus strikeout-performance.
Heenan and Reeves combined for no runs allowed, nine hits, six walks and 21 strikeouts. With high and hot temperatures filling most of the Friday action, Heenan says that staying focused was a big factor in pitching the full nine innings.
“I would say focus is a big thing, especially long innings that we have when we hit,” Heenan said. “Staying focused and not just joking around in there. You kind of just have to sit there and stay serious.”
“We kind of help each other between innings. Even some of the guys in the pen chart down what they see. ‘Hey, your slider’s not working like this, try this.’ We go out there and just get stronger as the game goes.”
For the first two games, the SU offense came out in full force, including three home runs. Reeves says that the seven-run gap helps a pitcher’s confidence.
“It makes it a lot easier to pitch when you’re blowing a team out,” Reeves said. “You have a little wiggle room, obviously you don’t want to let that get to your head, but if you make a mistake then it’s not gonna kill you.”
On Saturday, SU had a chance to end the day early and play only one game with a win. That is exactly what they did as senior right-hander Wes Whitlock started on the mound, adding another complete game to the mix to finish off the weekend in an 11-3 Sea Gull victory over York.
The SU staff’s scoreless streak stretched across 24 innings, until Whitlock faced a jam in the seventh inning of his game. At that point in the game, the Sea Gulls already had scored eight runs.
“Having the run support that we did, that was huge,” Whitlock said. “Not the situation I wanted to be in, but having those runs up on the board, I was just able to block that out and keep working. Just trusting the stuff.”
After that, it was smooth sailing for the senior Sea Gull as SU clinched a conference championship series berth with the help of two home runs and four doubles in the game.
“Wes had big shoes to fill today, especially after Connor and Austin went out there and put up goose eggs all day [on Friday],” Coach Brohawn said. “I thought he performed well. He got in some tight situations. We’re huge on body language and I thought his body language stayed strong. He continued to be aggressive and that’s what got him out of it.”
While there were three complete games from three different pitchers, one consistency remained among the three, their catcher Padeway.
Each of the three starters says that their sophomore catcher does not get enough credit out there. Whitlock noted his work horse mentality. Heenan sees the development and consistency Padeway has built throughout the season, now peaking at this point.
The sophomore also went 4-for-11 hitting over the three games including three RBIs and three doubles. Reeves says his bat is becoming very noticeable now.
“He’s out there catching in pretty much 90-degree heat on this turf,” Reeves said. “He’s definitely a huge part back there, just blocking balls and throwing guys out. He’s swinging it now too so I give him a lot of credit for being back there and eating the balls he does. He does an amazing job.”
The sophomore catcher is close with the senior Sea Gull trio off-the-field as well which aids in their overall success. All three pitchers are in the top four of the CAC for ERA with Reeves leading with a 1.33 mark. Reeves and Heenan are also both in the top-three for strikeouts and innings pitched.
Each pitcher noted that staying aggressive with each new batter was a key to their success. Heenan says that knowing each of their strengths is a must too as he uses mostly fastballs while Reeves and Whitlock show more movement. They will look to continue attacking next weekend.
Visiting Salisbury will be the third-seeded Penn State Harrisburg Lions. The Lions emerged from the Christopher Newport University pod of the CAC Tournament. On April 28, SU swept the Lions 11-3 and 14-3 in a double-header in Sea Gull Baseball Stadium.
“It’s great to be able to sleep in your own bed and come out to your own field,” Padeway said. “We know how the field plays. We know how the wind blows. We know everything. It’s nice to have a home atmosphere here with all of our fans here. It’s gonna be a good time next weekend.”
The CAC Championship series will begin on Friday, May 11 with a 3:30 p.m. first pitch. Game No. 2 will come Saturday at 11 a.m., while Game No. 3 (if necessary) will commence at about 2 p.m.
Other than the last time SU had a sub-4.00 ERA, there was something else special about that 2015 season. It was the last time SU made an appearance in the NCAA Division III College World Series. That mission is once again on the slate in this campaign as SU aims for another CAC crown.