GREENSBORO – Florida A&M has turned the race for the No. 1 seed out of the MEAC’s southern division for May’s MEAC baseball tournament into a free-for-all after sweeping North Carolina A&T in doubleheader action, 5-2 and 4-2, Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
The doubleheader sweep guaranteed the Aggies will lose their first MEAC series of the season after they won the first three. The losses also knocked the Aggies (11-15, 6-5 MEAC) out of first place in the south. The Rattlers (9-16, 6-4 MEAC) are up a half of game on A&T.
“It’s definitely up for grabs,” said A&T head coach Joel Sanchez about the top seed in the south. “We were sitting in first place and now we’re sitting right back in the middle of the pack again. We’ve got to come out tomorrow and try to salvage the weekend.”
The two schools conclude the series Sunday afternoon at 1. Florida A&M right-hander Chase Jarrell helped the Rattlers take control of the series’ first game. He pitched eight solid innings, recorded five strikeouts, walked five and gave up just two runs, one earned.
His counterpart, Brian Poag, struggled however. In his first start of the season, Poag threw 80 pitches over 3.2 innings and ran into major trouble in the FAMU fourth when the Rattlers loaded the bases with two out. Bennie Robinson ripped a single into right-center field to score two runners and give FAMU a 4-1 lead.
Poag then walked Ryan Kennedy on five pitches to load the bases again. The Aggies went to their bullpen to find what had been their No. 1 starter. Senior RHP Tyler Boone looked the part again on Saturday. With his ERA above seven, Boone came in a tough situation. He did get off to a slow start as he walked Michael Birdsong on four straight pitches to force in a run and give FAMU a 5-1 lead. But he was brilliant from that point on.
Boone pitched the Aggies final 5.1 innings, striking out four, giving up only two hits and zero runs. But A&T could not figure out Jarrell. He retired the last nine batters he faced before exiting after the Aggies eighth.
Right-hander Brandon Fleming came in the ninth and secured his second save of the season by only throwing nine pitches. Fleming also made an appearance in Game 2. This time the Rattlers had a 4-1 lead going into the seventh and final inning. Fleming had a much harder time closing out the Aggies in the nightcap.
A&T right fielder Dylan Hipp started Fleming's problems when he reached with one out on an error by FAMU second baseman Devin Perry. Hipp stole second and moved to third on a single by Ryan Hill. Fleming helped the Aggies load the bases by hitting Luke Tendler with a pitch. He then walked Cameron Jergens on four pitches to force in the Aggies' second run of the game. Fleming settled down and struck out Ernesto Lizardi and got Brandon Wilkerson to line out to end the game and earn his third save.
The ninth was not the Aggies only major scoring threat in Game 2. In the Aggies fifth, Lester Salcedo led off with a double down the left field line. Brandon Mitchell drove him home with a single to left, bringing the Aggies to within two runs, 4-2, as Mitchell moved to second on the throw to the infield.
A bunt single and a stolen base from Hipp put runners at third and second with no outs. But Game 2 starter David Duncan (2-2) struck out Hill. The Rattlers then walked Tendler intentionally to load the bases. But Duncan got Jergens to fly out and Lizardi struck out to end the inning.
“That was the storyline of the day, not being able to get a key hit,” said Sanchez. “It was not overpowering stuff from their pitching staff; we just didn’t lock in and get the job done. When we had the opportunities, we just couldn’t get the hits.”
Robinson was a combined 4-for-9 with four RBI and three runs scored in both games. He had a home run in Game 2. Blake Quillin added two hits and two runs in Game 1. Jeremy Barlow also homered in Game 2. Tendler was 2-for-2 in Game 2.