GREENSBORO — Perhaps the best gift the North Carolina A&T baseball seniors could have received on Sunday is the one they gave themselves—the final qualifying berth for the MEAC Tournament.
“They wanted to win and they did. They stepped it up. Those guys stepped it up as a group,” said A&T head coach Joel Sanchez.
With a 9-0 victory over Florida A&M on Sunday, the team’s first shutout win of the year, the Aggies stamped their ticket to the tournament, which will be held in Norfolk, Va. at Marty L. Miller Field from May 15-19.
“It’s nice to win on Senior Day, but it’s more important to make it to the tournament,” said senior right-hander Andrew Cook, who put the finishing touch on the victory by getting pinch hitter Justin Abney to fly out to end the game. “It feels good. We needed it.”
Each of the seven seniors who were available to play contributed to the win, and the seniors were key to sparking the offense for the Aggies (15-34, 8-15 MEAC).
“I didn’t expect any less,” said third baseman Mark Nales, who batted 2-for-4 with two RBI, of his senior class.
Cook capped off Senior Day by taking the ball from A&T junior right-hander Tyler Boone, who was one out away from his second career complete-game shutout. Boone allowed eight hits and struck out five to help shut down the Rattlers (7-41, 6-18).
“I was excited that everybody—all the seniors—got to play. That really meant a lot, said senior Dairio Little.
But what also means a lot is that the team now has a shot of heading back to the championship game—a spot the Aggies haven’t been in since 2010—when the seniors were freshmen.
“I feel like we can win it. I really do. If everybody comes to play, we’ll be all right,” said Little.
Sunday’s showdown between the two games was a tight one early. A&T chalked up their first run in the first inning. With two out, FAMU starter William Carrasco walked Kelvin Freeman. Freeman advanced to third as junior Cameron Jergens reached on an error. Jergens then tried to steal second, prompting Freeman to take off for home plate. In the process of trying to get Jergens in a rundown, Freeman scored, before Jergens was eventually tagged out to end the inning. A&T starter Tyler Boone retired the first nine batters he faced before working his way out of a fourth-inning jam.
“We knew our work was cut out for us today because these guys weren’t going to roll over for us and they didn’t,” said Sanchez. “It was a battle for the first part of the game until we finally broke it up in the fifth, got a little breathing room.”
In the fifth, it was Washington who sparked a three-run push. He slammed his fifth career double to center field to start the inning. Washington advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt . Freshman Brandon Wilkerson sharply hit the ball, which hit second baseman Kendall Weeks. Washington scored to give A&T a 2-0 lead. Wilkerson then stole second, and advanced to third as shortstop Luke Tendler, who went 2-for-4, flied out. Freeman was hit by a pitch to put runners on the corners for Jergens who hit the ball toward the left side. Third baseman Michael Birdsong overthrew the ball to first. Both runners scored and Jergens slid into third safely on the error.
The Aggies put the game out of reach in the eighth. Nales made 7-0 with a two-run RBI single up the middle. Sophomore Bo McMillan reached on an error, setting up an RBI single by Wilkerson to bring home Nales for the eighth A&T run. Tendler close out the scoring with an RBI double to right.
A&T’s offensive output was supported by one of its strongest pitching outings of the season. Boone struck out five and did not walk a batter over 8.2 innings of work.
“He got smacked around a bit last time against them. These guys thought they had his number last time, so he pretty much stepped it up. That was big,” Sanchez said of Boone’s performance.
For the seniors, it’s also big that the Aggies can continue to play a little longer together this spring.
“A few more at-bats, a few more opportunities to win some more games and bring a ring back to Greensboro,” Nales said. “The season goes on.”
The Aggies will travel to Elon to take on the Phoenix on Tuesday at 6 p.m. before hosting Winthrop on Wednesday at 6 p.m. They will then head to Norfolk to try to win the program’s fourth MEAC title.