PEMBROKE —The postgame coach-to-players chat lasted longer than usual in left field Monday afternoon following the 16th-ranked University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s 8-6 loss to North Georgia.
For the third time this season, the Braves failed to close out a three-game sweep in the Peach Belt Conference, a detail that’s beginning to wear on veteran skipper Paul O’Neil and could mean the difference in a regional berth or an extended summer.
“We’ve got a good baseball team that wants to be there at the end playing for something,” O’Neil said. “But we can’t do that with the mistakes we’re making. The little things that don’t show up in the box score. We need to have a better sense of urgency and start playing with more intensity.”
Leading 5-2 after seven strong innings out of unbeaten starter Andy Sullivan, UNCP closer Zach Andrews blew his second save in seven chances during a dismal eighth capped by a chopper to center that resulted in three runs.
North Georgia loaded the bases via two singles and a walk before things unraveled for the Braves with two outs.
Joey Cecere’s single up the middle cleared the bases to tie the game after his grounder slithered underneath the glove of UNCP outfielder Drew Cole for a two-base error — his first of the season. The Knights took the lead for good with three more runs in the ninth after the Braves battled back to lead by one in their next at-bat.
“The last two weeks, I’d hate to see how many errors we’ve made (on defense),” O’Neil said. “Guys are making uncharacteristic mistakes and they’re leading to runs. We let one get away when we should have played hard enough for the sweep.”
After missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery, Sullivan was in line for his fifth win in five starts before Andrews’ shaky appearance. Sullivan scattered three hits and gave two unearned runs over seven innings of work with five strikeouts.
He left with the Braves on the edge of a sweep, but the ensuing blown save didn’t seem to phase the redshirt-junior.
“Things happen that you really can’t control … that’s baseball,” Sullivan said. “I still take the guys coming in after me 10 times out of 10. Sometimes you have a bad day.”
UNCP (25-9, 13-8) took a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the eighth on a fielder’s choice but couldn’t hold it. The Saints (14-17, 4-11) struck for three runs on four hits off Andrews in their next at-bat which was more than enough for hard-throwing reliever Christian Turnipseed who tossed two scoreless frames for the decision.
UNCP secured its fifth conference series win in seven tries with two victories on Sunday, but it’s the lack of poise in close-out games that’s been difficult to figure out.
“We showed a bunch of resiliency to come back and score a run after they tied it up,” O’Neil said. “We had a one-run lead going into the ninth and couldn’t hold it. Andy threw the ball fine and competed. Zach has been a vital part of (our team), it just wasn’t happening for him (today).”
UNCP hosts 25th-ranked Catawba on Wednesday before a three-game weekend series with No. 29 Wingate. O’Neil plans on using his usual conference rotation despite a stretch of six non-league contests forthcoming.
“This week’s a huge week for us against in-state rivals,” O’Neil said. “Catawba’s one of the best teams we play, year in and year out. They’ve got good players. We better play a lot better than we did the last two games of this series if we want to have a chance at beating them.”
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
North Georgia 8, UNCP 6
UNC Pembroke 013 001 010 — 6 10 3
WP — Christian Turnipseed. LP — Zach Andrews.
Leading hitters — NG: Cecere 1-4, 2 RBI; Naraine 2-4, RBI. UNCP: Denton 3-4, RBI; Schmucker 3-4, RBI.
Records — North Georgia 14-17, 4-11; UNCP 25-9, 13-8.