GREENSBORO – North Carolina A&T freshman John Pope and junior relief pitcher Luke McCreesh entered Saturday’s baseball game against Bethune-Cookman as two players struggling to get on track. They came away from the game as two players who were vital to the Aggies 4-3 win over the Wildcats at War Memorial Stadium.
The win helped the Aggies (15-24, 8-10 MEAC) take two out of three from the Wildcats (20-23, 12-9) who entered the series as the No. 1 team out of the MEAC’s southern division. More importantly, the Aggies are just one game behind the Wildcats and N.C. Central in the loss column after going 4-2 against Bethune-Cookman during the regular season.
Pope set the table for the win on Saturday when he scorched the first pitch he saw from left-hand reliever Riley O’Brien down the left-field line for a double in the seventh. Junior Lester Salcedo followed with a single to right field to put runners at first and third. Junior Brandon Wilkerson then took the first pitch he saw from O’Brien and lifted it into center field for an RBI sacrifice fly that scored the go-ahead run as Pope came in from third.
RHP Luke McCreesh took care of the rest in relief. McCreesh (1-0) picked up the win for the Aggies by pitching three hitless and scoreless innings. The only base runner he allowed came in the ninth when he walked Zach Olszewski. He had retired the first eight batters he faced up until that point, striking out two of them. McCreesh, who entered the game with an ERA above 11, got Eric Sams to ground out to end the game.
“He’s been a guy who hasn’t gotten good results lately,” said A&T head coach Joel Sanchez about McCreesh. “He has been in games, he has thrown strikes, but he has been up in the zone. Today he was down in the zone, threw strikes, worked ahead (in the count) and threw all three of his pitches for strikes.”
He was not the only pitcher who threw well for A&T on Saturday. Right-hand starter Mitchell McQueen was excellent for A&T. He went six innings, gave up three runs, none earned and recorded six strikeouts. “We knew because of who they were throwing that if McQueen threw strikes, he’d give us a chance (to win),” said Sanchez.
Throwing strikes is precisely what McQueen did. Seventy-four of his 99 pitches were thrown for strikes, he did not walk anyone and he only went to a 3-ball count with two batters all evening. Pope gave McQueen a 3-1 lead in the fifth set up by an intentional walk given to Luke Tendler. Tendler’s walk loaded the bases with one out. The Wildcats wanted to put the pressure on Pope because at the time he was hitting .095.
But instead Pope responded by hitting a line drive over the head of Wildcats center fielder Eros Modena for a two-run RBI double. Pope was an unlikely hero because he entered the game in the fourth after starting first baseman Cameron Jergens and Wildcats catcher Jose Carballo got into an altercation that led to their ejections.
Sanchez thought about bringing in a reserved outfielder to replace Jergens until Pope changed his mind.
“He looked at us and said, ‘I’m your man,’” said Sanchez. “He swung the bat well. He had not been out there in a long time, but he came in and didn’t miss a beat. He carried the load offensively, and that was a big bonus for us. Even though he is a freshman, he wasn’t fazed. Good for him…heck, good for us.”
The Wildcats tied the game at 3 in the sixth thanks in part to a dropped fly ball. But the Aggies’ rally in the seventh clinched the win. Dylan Hipp and Salcedo also had two hits apiece.
“Taking two out of three from the top team in the conference is definitely a bonus,” said Sanchez. “Our guys competed throughout the weekend. We hadn’t seen that in a three-game (conference) series in while. Hopefully we can carry this momentum into the rest of the season.”
The Aggies play Radford on the road 6 p.m., Tuesday before returning home to face High Point 6 p.m., Wednesday. They then have a key three-game MEAC series at home against Savannah State April 26-27.