What better way to follow up Valentine’s Day than with the return of college baseball? Feb. 15 saw the Mercer Bears baseball team return to action, hosting the Purple Aces of Evansville.
The two schools played a three-game series at OrthoGeorgia Park, with the Bears taking the first two of three contests. Reigning Southern Conference Freshman of the Year RJ Yeager picked up right where he left off with two home runs on the weekend, while new faces such as Kel Johnson and Angelo DiSpigna were key contributors in their Mercer debuts.
Game One: Mercer 5, Evansville 4
In front of nearly 1,500 spectators on Friday night, the Bears held off a late comeback effort to defeat the Purple Aces. Right-handed junior Sawyer Gipson-Long was dominant in his 11th career start on the mound, allowing just one unearned run on four hits over five innings of work.
Offensively, a three-run first inning against Evansville starter Adam Lukas put the Bears in front. First baseman Collin Price’s single scored right fielder Kel Johnson, and two batters later, center fielder Zach Miller drove in Price and third baseman DiSpigna with another single.
A pair of solo home runs from shortstop Yeager in the second and Johnson in the fifth rounded out the scoring for the Bears. Evansville plated one run in the fourth and took advantage of some Mercer pitching mistakes in the top of the ninth, scoring three runs to cut the deficit down to one.
After redshirt freshman Matt Blair loaded the bases with one out, Senior Kevin Coulter came in to slam the door and record the save, striking out the only two batters he faced. The win marks the ninth consecutive year in which the Bears have been victorious on opening day.
Game Two: Mercer 7, Evansville 6
Another hot offensive start was again enough to hold off a resilient Evansville team and secure a series win. Evansville starter Nathan Croner had a forgettable night, giving up all seven runs on just five hits over four innings. The Bears rifled off three consecutive hits with two outs in the second inning, highlighted by Johnson’s three-run home run, to take an early 5-0 lead.
Two more RBIs from left fielder Garrett Wilkinson and second baseman Kyle Dockus in the fifth rounded out the scoring for Mercer. Evansville reliever Shane Gray held the Bears to just two hits in the final four innings of the contest. Left-handed junior Tanner Hall was good enough to record the win in his first career weekend start, giving up four earned runs and striking out three in 4.1 innings.
Making their Mercer debuts, freshman Jackson Kelley and junior college transfer Beau Healy gave up one run each in a combined 3.2 innings of relief work. With the Purple Aces threatening after a Nate Reeder home run in the ninth brought them within one, Coulter entered the game and retired all three batters he faced to record his second save.
Game Three: Mercer 2, Evansville 7
Sunday afternoon saw the Bears lose their first contest of the season, leaving eight runners on base in a 7-2 defeat. After giving up a first-pitch home run to Yeager, Alex Weigand bent but never broke in his start for Evansville, allowing seven hits but only two runs in his five innings of work.
Relievers Austin Allinger and Jake McMahill combined to hold the Bears to just one baserunner over the final four innings. Late-game home runs from A.J. Fritz, Nate Reeder, and Kenton Crews powered the Purple Aces’ offense and put the game out of reach. Mercer starter Zach Graveno carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning, but allowed two runs in the fifth before being relieved by Scott Smith. Graveno set a career high in strikeouts, fanning seven over his 4.2 innings of work.
Smith took the loss in his 1.2 innings of relief, surrendering the lead in the sixth. Nick Spear and Holton McGaha each went 1.1 innings and gave up two runs apiece, though Spear’s were unearned, to finish the final game of the series. A lone bright spot for Mercer offensively was freshman DiSpigna, who, after being held hitless in the first two games, led all hitters with three hits in the contest.
Offensively, there are plenty of positives to take away from this series for the Bears. The big names like Yeager, Johnson and DiSpigna are all living up to expectations thus far.
Pitching will need to improve if Mercer is to find more success in 2019, but Coulter and Gipson-Long were impressive on the mound.
The Bears return to action on Wednesday, traveling to Tallahassee, Florida to take on Florida A&M before returning home for a three-game weekend series against Alabama A&M.