It’s hard for a baseball team to win games if it can’t hit. That was Mercer’s plight again Wednesday in a 8-2 loss to Kennesaw State on a brisk evening at Claude Smith Field.
Three Owls pitchers limited the Bears to just four hits while collecting 16 strikeouts on the way to the victory between former A-Sun rivals. The handcuffing came a day after the Bears suffered 11 strikeouts in a 14-1 home loss to Georgia State.
“We’re not putting the ball in play,” said Mercer head coach Craig Gibson, whose team dropped its fourth straight following a season-opening win over Virginia Tech. “The (Kennesaw pitchers Wednesday) were good, and the guys (Tuesday) night were good, but we have to be more competitive in the batter’s box.”
Freshman A.J. Moore made his first college start for the Owls, who are ranked 19th nationally by Baseball America. The 6-foot-3 right-hander looked more like an upperclassmen before exiting with one out in the fourth inning after allowing three hits, both runs and a lone walk with nine strikeouts.
“He has such good mound presence and composure on top of some good stuff,” said Kennesaw head coach Mike Sansing, who’s in his 24th season with the Owls. “When you can throw breaking balls for strikes at 2-and-1 (count) and 3-and-2, that’s impressive.”
Sophomore Chris Erwin followed Moore and was equally effective. After hitting the first batter he faced, the left-hander retired 11 straight, six on strikeouts, to earn the victory.
“Chris came right behind (Moore) and matched him,” Sansing said. “It was good to see them both throw well this early and get us that deep in the game.”
Tony Dibrell worked the ninth for the Owls, allowing the other hit and collecting the final strikeout.
Senior Grant Papelian, the first of five pitchers for the Bears, suffered the loss in his season debut. The left-hander departed with one out in the fifth having allowed five runs on eight hits.
“He’s had some shoulder issues,” Gibson said of Papelian, a weekend starter as a junior. “He gave us a good first inning, which has been a problem so far. Then they got the ball in that wind and hit a couple out of the park, and we didn’t do anything to help ourselves.”
Left-handed hitter Alex Liquori capitalized on the stiff wind blowing from right field to lead off the second with a pop-fly home run to left-center. After an out, Jeremy Howell rode the same wind to a double off the top of the fence in left-center.
After another out, Justin Motley and Kal Simmons followed with run-scoring singles to give the Owls all the runs they needed. Colin Bennett smacked a two-run home run in the third, again to left-center.
“We definitely took advantage of the wind,” Sansing said. “It was good to get that much offense early.”
Designated hitter Tyler Homer accounted for both Mercer runs with a double in the fifth inning off Moore after Howard Joe and Devin Bonin opened the inning with singles.
But that was all the Bears, who started six underclassmen, could manage. Moore struck out the next hitter he faced before giving way to Erwin, who was spotless save the hit batter, before turning things over to Dibrell.
“This is the youngest team I’ve had,” said Gibson, whose 31-player roster in his 12th season shows 19 freshmen or sophomores. “We’ve played some good teams. We just have to grow up a little bit at the plate. We have some talent. Once we get everybody on track, we’ll be fine.”