NACOGDOCHES, Texas (Press Release) - Much of the offseason chatter regarding the Stephen F. Austin baseball team centered around the change in identity the `Jacks were trying to make from 2016 to 2017. Instead of a power hitting ball club, the current edition of SFA would be centered around pitching and feature a lineup that would not have as much pop.
On Friday night at Jaycees Field, the pitching was, unquestionably, present and accounted for, but it was a touch of power at the right time that helped SFA pass its first test.
Zac Michener broke a 2-2 tie with a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth and the `Jacks used seven pitchers to hold a hard-hitting Southeast Missouri State lineup in check and claim a 3-2 win on the opening day of NCAA Division I baseball.
Making his Stephen F. Austin debut, junior right-hander Trevor Kiminski tossed 5.1 innings of two-hit baseball to register his first NCAA Division I pitching victory. The Brooklyn Park, Minn., product had five of SFA's nine strikeouts and the other four went to various members of SFA's hard-tossing bullpen.
"We've been talking to the guys throughout the fall and in the spring preseason about having a role, embracing that role and being prepared excel in your role and I think our pitching staff really bought into that tonight," said ninth year head coach Johnny Cardenas who won his fourth-straight season opener as SFA's skipper.
Once the game was turned over to the `Jacks' relievers, they wasted little time in closing the door on the preseason Ohio Valley Conference favorites. Junior Ivan Garcia worked around a leadoff walk in the seventh and retired the Southeast Missouri State side before handing things over to infielder-turned-pitcher Will Vest.
In command of the game, all the junior did was strike out the side in his first-ever collegiate pitching appearance in the eight and sophomore Tyler Starks fanned one of the four batters he faced to pick up a 21-pitch save - his first of 2017 and the eighth of his career.
"Working through the offseason we knew that Will [Vest] has an electric arm and that he had the potential to give us some really quality innings," Cardenas said. "Our message to him was to go out there, calm your nerves, and don't let your adrenaline be your enemy."
After failing to solve Redhawks' senior starter and preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference honoree Robert Beltran through the first two frames, the `Jacks' bottom half of the batting order were able to do so in the third. Clark Kahawaii drilled a 1-0 pitch to the deepest part of center field for a leadoff double and came around to score after the Redhawks threw Gavin Gregory's sacrifice bunt attempt over the head of their first baseman.
Senior Nick Ramos extended the `Jacks' lead to 2-0 by driving Gregory in with an RBI single before the inning came to a close.
Unable to get much going against the `Jacks' right-handed newcomer from the Land of 10,000 Lakes through the first third of the game, the Redhawks did a little bit of everything in the fourth to bring themselves even with SFA.
Kiminski issued a walk, hit a batter and gave up one of his two hits to load the bases with no outs. From there Aiden McMahan sent a grounder to Ramos that the senior threw away to allow a pair of Redhawk runners to score.
The 2-2 deadlock lasted until Michener's one-out at bat in the home half of the fifth. Once the reigning Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year turned on Beltran's 2-2 fastball, all in attendance knew it had no chance of staying in the park.
In the top of the sixth, the `Jacks had to use Kiminski, Seth Campbell, Austin Hagy and Aaron Cardona to escape the frame unscathed. Both Hagy and Cardona - who was making his collegiate debut - induced flyouts and left a pair of Redhawk runners on the basepaths.
Michener went 2-for-4 at the dish while Kahawaii, Ramos and Tyler Kendrick each racked up one hit each. Kyler Robertson had two of the three Southeast Missouri State hits in the nine-inning affair.