The door of opportunity was thrust open for Mercer’s baseball team Sunday at Claude Smith Field in the race for the top spot in the Southern Conference.
A dropoff in pitching and missed chances at the plate in key situations, however, prevented the Bears from taking advantage.
Mercer lost both games of Sunday’s doubleheader against UNC Greensboro, dropping the first game 9-3 and the finale 8-7 after winning Friday’s series opener.
The losses squandered a golden opportunity for the Bears to pull ahead in the conference race. Mercer came into the weekend deadlocked with Samford, but the Bulldogs lost twice during the weekend. By losing to UNC Greensboro, the Bears (26-18, 11-6 conference) are percentage points behind Samford (23-19, 10-5) for the conference lead.
The teams meet May 14-16 at Mercer.
The Bears’ usually reliable pitching fell short Sunday.
Prior to Sunday’s doubleheader, Mercer’s pitching staff had allowed more than five runs in a single conference game twice. But the Spartans were able to surpass that mark in both of Sunday’s contests.
In the first game, they mounted four runs off of Mercer starting pitcher Grant Papelian, including a three-run homer. The Spartans added five more runs in the ninth inning, four on a Collin Woody grand slam off of Ryan Askew.
Papelian (4-4) was charged with the loss.
In the second game, starting pitcher DJ Johnson and reliever Morgan Pittman combined to handle the work load into the eighth inning.
UNC Greensboro found multiple ways to push runs across the plate. A Tyler Long two-run single in the first inning touched off a back-and-forth game. The Spartans led 4-3 after one of two homers by Zac MacAneney and Hunter King singling and stealing second, third and home plate.
Pittman entered the game with the score tied after four innings, After a pair of scoreless innings, he was touched up for a pair of two-out runs in the seventh and what turned out to be another two-out run in the eighth. The seventh-inning tallies came on a MacAneney homer and single by Woody to score King, who reached on an error. In the eighth, with the score tied at 7, Eric Kalbfleisch crushed a ball over the fence for the go-ahead run and an 8-7 UNC Greensboro lead.
Pittman (2-1) took the loss.
Mercer was unable to find as much clutch hitting as the Spartans. The Bears stranded 10 runners in both games. They also led off the final two innings with a walk but were unable to manufacture any runs off of the scoring chances.
Still, the Bears did put themselves into position to win the second game with some strong hitting of their own. They erased a 2-0 first-inning deficit in the second inning on a Trey Truitt RBI double and two-run single from Charlie Madden.
Down 4-3 going into the bottom of the third, Mercer bounced back again to lead 5-4 on a two-run homer by Jackson Ware. Mercer drew even again in the seventh on a Danny Edgeworth single to bring in Devin Bonin and a Nate Moorhouse single to bring in Edgeworth.
Mercer, which scored the runs with one out in the seventh, had a chance to add more, but Howard Joe and Truitt flew out to end the inning, a missed chance that loomed large.
Kyle Lewis went 5-for-5 in the first game for Mercer.