The Braves (10-1, 2-1) avenged a loss earlier in the day with a dominant effort on the mound in the nightcap, riding a season-high 14 strikeouts from Dale Innes to take their first Peach Belt Conference series. Since opening at No. 32 in the polls on Feb. 2, UNCP has climbed to No. 16 with top-end pitching and a lineup hitting .357.
“10-1 is a lot better than being 1-10,” O’Neil said after Monday’s rubber game win. “It’d be nice to win nine more before we lost again and do that the rest of the season, but we know that’s a little unrealistic.”
Ethan Carter (3-0, 0.00 ERA) has been nearly untouchable through his first three Division II starts, scattering 11 hits over 22 scoreless innings. Carter tossed a five-hit complete game shutout in Sunday’s snow-postponed opener against Columbus State (3-8, 1-2) and has issued only one free pass all season — an intentional walk in the ninth with first base open.
Innes, UNCP’s “power pitcher” according to O’Neil, has fanned 34 batters through 17 innings and holds a 3.18 ERA. Innes retired the last seven batters he faced Monday before the Cougars scored three runs over the final two innings against the Braves’ bullpen.
“Those guys are really, really good and they’ve been great weapons for us so far,” O’Neil said. “Ethan is a bit more polished pitcher who gets groundballs and gets you deep into ballgames. Dale’s the one with electric stuff who challenges hitters and gets them out. He’s got a nasty curveball that guys can’t seem to hit even when they know it’s coming. His pitch count (116) was a little high today, but we needed that performance out of him.”
Six everyday starters, including junior first baseman Brett Huffman, are hitting at least .360 this season in a lineup that had several question marks coming in. O’Neil said he felt comfortable with his selections at eight positions coming into spring, choices that have been further supported by the roaring start.
Three players — Jordan Edgerton, Ben Schmucker and Dalton Knight — have each driven in 11 runs while Huffman leads the team in hitting at .422. In Monday’s 12-11 extra-inning loss to Columbus State, the Braves pounded out 15 hits and overcame a 10-2 deficit in the sixth before squandering a one-run lead in the ninth.
“We’ve got a good team, but I’ve told the guys that we have to work on our weakness from game to game,” O’Neil said. “Fixing holes in your game is important as the season progresses. If you’re having a hard time hitting a curveball, then work hard and hit the curve next time out. In this league, word gets around fast and teams pick up on your weaknesses.”
Satisfied through the first three weeks, UNCP’s skipper says a middle-inning lapse in Monday’s first game loss is probably cost his team a perfect start.
“Our closer may have blown the lead, but that’s not what lost the game,” O’Neil said. “Giving up big innings in the fourth, fifth and sixth is what did it. We didn’t do a good job of weathering that storm. I was happy with the way we fought back before they just flat out beat us in extras.”
The Braves make an eight-hour trek toward Birmingham, Ala., this weekend to take on Montevallo (5-5, 2-1) in their first road series. The Falcons took 2-of-3 from UNCP at Sammy Cox Field last season.
“We know they’re a physical and athletic group of guys,” O’Neil said. “We’ll take these next few days to look at charts and a couple box scores to try and devise a plan to go after them.”