CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Senior righthander Mike Volpe earned his tenth victory of the season and senior catcher Andrew Parker blasted a monstrous three-run homer as the Tigers (30-28) continued their magical post-season with a 7-2 victory over No. 23 Florida Atlantic (39-21) in the first round of the NCAA Regional Tournament at Boshamer Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Volpe, who pitched the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament last Saturday with a 5-2 win over William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, pitched seven very strong innings as the Tigers ended Florida Atlantic’s 11-game winning streak.
Volpe, who has a 3-0 record in the post-season, scattered four hits and allowed one unearned run with two walks and four strikeouts as he improved his record to 10-3 on the season. After issuing a leadoff walk to senior centerfielder Nathan Pittman in the eighth inning, he turned the game over to the bullpen. Junior righthander Nik Nowottnick finished the game with a flourish, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Parker, who went one-for-four in the game, helped the Tigers offensively and defensively. He highlighted the Tigers’ five-run sixth inning with a three-run homer to left. He also threw out a runner trying to steal and ended a Florida Atlantic rally by picking off Mark Nelson with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
“It is so great to be back in this environment,” said Towson Coach Mike Gottlieb, who guided the Tigers to their first regional appearance since 1991. “It is quite rewarding and I am so thrilled that these guys have the opportunity to experience this.”
The win over Florida Atlantic marked the first time in three NCAA regional tournaments that the Tigers won their opening game. Towson will play their second NCAA regional contest on Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. against the winner of the first round game between host North Carolina and fourth-seeded Canisius.
“When you can get a pitching performance like we received from Mike (Volpe), you have a great chance to win,” added Gottlieb. “Obviously, the sixth inning was the turning point in the game. Up until that point, we had been struggling with the bats. But, we turned it around in the sixth inning and gave ourselves a nice lead.”
The Tigers’ first NCAA regional game in 22 years started off as a pitcher’s duel between Volpe and righthander Jeremy Strawn. Strawn shut out the Tigers on two hits through the first three innings before the Owls threatened in the bottom of the third inning. With one out, Pittman drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch to start the rally. Junior leftfielder Geoff Jiminez reached base on an infield single to shortstop to give the Owls two runners on base with one out. After a prolonged at-bat, Nelson was retired on a fly ball to right as Pittman advanced to third base. With Jiminez on first base and Pittman on third, the Owls tried a trick play by having Jiminez break for second base. However, Volpe wasn’t fooled and allowed Jiminez to steal second base while Pittman remained on third. Then, Volpe won a six-pitch battle with junior designated hitter Tyler Rocklein by getting him to fly out to rightfield where junior Dominic Fratantuono made the catch.
In the top of the fourth inning, the Tigers scored the first run of the game, thanks to junior designated hitter Kurt Wertz. Wertz led off the inning with a single to centerfield on a 3-2 pitch. Wertz stole second base while Strawn was striking out sophomore leftfielder Peter Bowles. With a runner on second base and one out, Fratantuono reached base when he was hit by a pitch. Wertz advanced to third base when sophomore first baseman Brendan Butler flew out to centerfield. With Wertz on third and Fratantuono on first base, the Tigers tried a delayed double steal. Junior catcher Levi Meyer threw down to second base but sophomore shortstop Mitch Morales cut off the throw and was ready to throw the ball home. But, Wertz had already scored to give Towson a 1-0 lead. Strawn pitched out of the jam by striking out Parker.
Once the Tigers gave Volpe a lead, he got tougher. He retired the Owls in order in the fourth and fifth innings as the Tigers took their 1-0 lead into the top of the sixth inning.
Junior second baseman Pat Fitzgerald led off the sixth inning with a single to centerfield, extending his on-base streak to 28 games in a row. When Wertz lined a double to right centerfield, Fitzgerald reached third base to give the Tigers runners on second and third with no outs. Bowles followed with a single to right centerfield, Fitzgerald scored while Wertz held up at third base.
Fratantuono upped the Tigers’ lead to 3-0 when he doubled to left centerfield as Wertz scored his second run of the game. After the double by Fratantuono, Strawn was relieved by junior righthander Kevin Alexander.
Alexander got Butler to hit a weak ground ball to first base where Nelson threw home to retire Bowles, trying to score from third base.
On a 2-2 pitch, Parker launched a long home run well over the left field fence, his 11th homer of the season and the 23rd of his college career. His three-run homer broke the game open and gave Towson a 6-0 lead.
Staked to a 6-0 lead, Volpe retired the Owls in the sixth inning without incident. In the seventh inning, he allowed a one-out single to Meyer, Florida Atlantic’s first hit since the third inning. But Volpe retired the next two hitters to preserve the shutout.
With one out in the eighth inning, Butler gave the Tigers a 7-0 advantage with a solo home run to left centerfield. It was his fifth homer of the season,
In the bottom of the eighth, the Owls came to life. After Volpe walked Pittman to lead off the inning, he was relieved by junior lefthander Kyle Paul. Paul got Jiminez to hit a ground ball to shortstop. In his haste to turn a double play, junior shortstop Hunter Bennett committed a rare error as Florida Atlantic had two runners on base with no outs. When Nelson was hit by a pitch, Florida Atlantic had the bases loaded with no outs.
While Paul was pitching to Rocklein, Parker made one of the biggest plays of the game. With Butler playing behind Nelson, the runner at first base, Parker threw down to first base when Butler snuck in behind the runner and he picked him off for the first out of the inning.
The pickoff play proved to be even more important when Rocklein singled to left field, scoring Pittman with the Owls’ first run of the game. Freshman second baseman Brendon Sanger followed by hitting a ground ball between first and second base. Fitzgerald ranged to his right and threw to Bennett at second base for the force play while Jiminez scored an unearned run. Senior rightfielder Corey Keller came through with a double down the left field line as Sanger reached third base.
After the double by Keller, Nowottnick came out of the bullpen to relieve Paul. He pitched out of the jam by getting Meyer to ground out to shortstop.
In the bottom of the ninth, Nowottnick nailed down the 7-2 win by striking out the side.
“Getting the big lead in the sixth inning helped me a lot,” said Volpe. “I concentrated on keeping the ball down and I was able to throw my curve ball for strikes. I knew it was a big game but I just tried to treat it like any other game and not get too excited. When we got the lead, I just tried to pitch to contact and get through the innings.”
Volpe, who became only the third pitcher in Towson baseball history, to win at least 10 games in a season, pitched seven innings and allowed one unearned run on four hits. He walked two batters and had four strikeouts. Volpe allowed only one hit after the third inning and retired 14 of the last 17 batters he faced.
The CAA champion Tigers outhit the Sun Belt Conference champion Owls by an 11-6 margin as all nine Tigers in the starting lineup had at least one base hit. Sophomore centerfielder Richie Blosser and Wertz each had two hits. Wertz was two-for-five with two runs scored while Parker had three RBI’s.
With the win, the Tigers reached the 30-win level for the seventh time in school history. The Tigers have now won five games in a row and seven of their last eight games.
TIGER TALES: The Tigers faced Florida Atlantic without regular centerfielder Brandon Gonnella … Gonnella was sidelined with an injury but Coach Gottlieb hopes he will be available for the Tigers’ game against either North Carolina or Canisius … When Volpe was charged with an unearned run in the eighth inning against Florida Atlantic, it was the first run he allowed in 11 innings … While improving his record to 10-3, Volpe became the first Tiger pitcher to throw more than 100 innings in a season … He has started a school record 16 games and has thrown a school record 102.2 innings this season.
With the victory, the Tigers improved to 3-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament games … By beating 23rd-ranked Owls, Towson is now 3-5 against nationally-ranked teams this season … Towson went 0-3 against No. 30 Pittsburgh before dropping a 7-1 decision to No. 5 Virginia … The Tigers won two of three games against No. 21 North Carolina Wilmington before beating the No. 23 Owls.