GREENSBORO - Over the first two years of his career, senior third baseman Mark Nales played in a combined 103 games. A year ago, he played in just 16. Nales calls his time away from the North Carolina A&T baseball lineup a blessing in the skies.
On Opening Day Friday at War Memorial Stadium, Nales blessed the Aggies with a walk-off single in the ninth inning to lead A&T to a 6-5 Game 2 win over Buffalo. Behind three RBI from junior catcher Stefan Jordan, the Aggies took Game 1, 6-3.
"Being out of the lineup gave me an opportunity to focus more and be more selective on pitches instead of being overly aggressive on the high ones," Nales said. "Now I just let it ride, pick my pitch out and do with it what you're supposed to."
Nales saw what he described as slow fast ball from Buffalo relief pitcher River McWilliams. "I saw the opportunity to win the game," Nales said about the McWilliams pitch.
Nales put that opportunity into left field to plate Luke Tendler with the winning run. The ninth opened with freshman shortstop Jeovanny Tolentino delivering what appeared to be the game-winning home run on the first pitch of the inning. But the ball went about six inches wide of the left-field foul pole. The foul ball helped to put Tolentino in a 0-2 hole in the count. But he remained patient on a breaking ball and roped into right field for a base hit.
It put the Bulls in the position to have to face the Aggies No. 3 and 4 hitters in Tendler and senior Kelvin Freeman, with no outs in the inning. Even with their reputation for being sluggers, Tendler and Freeman remained remarkably patient as McWilliams walked both to load the bases.
"Those guys are there to drive in runs, so we knew the pressure was on their guy," said A&T head coach Joel Sanchez. "We didn't have anybody out, so we had a few chances at it. Mark Nales stepped up and had a big night."
Before Nales' heroics, Cameron Jergens hit into a fielder's choice. The groundball eliminated Tolentino - who was trying to score from third - from the base paths. But Nales was able to step up to lead the Aggies, who were down 5-3 going into the home eighth, to the come-from-behind win. It was Nales who opened the eighth with a double, which led to a two-base throwing error by McWilliams that allowed Nales to score to bring the Aggies to within one.
"That's what Aggies do," Nales said. "We never feel like we're out of it."
Nales had three hits, two RBI and two runs scored in Game 2.
Senior Bradley Jeffries and sophomore Jamal Clark were excellent in relief for A&T after starter Justin Godette was chased after 2.1 innings. Jeffries gave up two runs, one earned and struck out two over four innings. Clark (1-0) picked up the win after striking out three and pitching 2.2 innings of shutout baseball. Clark also helped the Aggies get out of a two on, one out jam in Buffalo's seventh.
"Godette struggled a little bit, but he has better stuff than what he showed today," said Sanchez after Godette walked five. "But we didn't pack it in. Our middle relief gave us a long outing, longer than I expected."
In the first game, the Aggies got the majority of their offensive production from the bottom of their lineup. Jordan, who bats eighth in the Aggies lineup, hit a two-run RBI double in the second to give A&T a 2-0 lead. Bo McMillian immediately followed with an RBI double to right to score Jordan. McMillian also had an RBI double in the fourth and went 3-for-3 at the plate.
Junior right-hander Josh Ganus (1-0) took care of the Bulls' bats. He went six innings, surrendered just one run and gave up six hits. Tyler Boone (1) picked up the save. Nales was also efficient in the first game. He scored three times after walking twice and earning a single. Freeman homered in Game 1 and Tendler went yard in Game 2.
The Aggies face the Bulls again Saturday at 1 p.m., at War Memorial Stadium. If the game is postponed due to inclement weather, the two teams will play at 1 p.m., Sunday.