TOWSON, Md.– Sophomore first baseman Brendan Butler had three base hits, including a game-tying home run in the fifth inning as the Tigers (21-21, 11-7) edged No. 21 North Carolina Wilmington, 8-5, in the deciding game of their three-game Colonial Athletic Association weekend series at John B. Schuerholz Park on Sunday afternoon.
With the win, the Tigers became the first CAA team to beat UNCW in a three-game series this season. The Seahawks, who won the series opener on Friday by a 10-5 margin, dropped a 9-5 decision on Saturday. It marked only the third time this season that the Seahawks dropped back-to-back game.
The Seahawks, who came into the series after a 9-8 victory over No. 1-ranked North Carolina, had won 11 of their last 12 games before losing to Towson on Saturday.
By winning two of three games from the Seahawks, the Tigers moved into a second place tie in the CAA standings with William & Mary.
Junior righthander Nik Nowottnick, the Tigers’ fourth pitcher of the game, earned the win in Sunday’s series finale. He came into the game with one out in the fifth inning and pitched 4.1 innings of solid relief. He allowed two runs on three hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
“Nik Nowottnick was the difference in the game,” said Towson Coach Mike Gottlieb. “The game was up for grabs when he came in from the bullpen and he shut them down. He had tremendous stuff and did a great job. Once we got the lead, he was even better.”
In a game that was tied three times, the Tigers scored first. In the bottom of the first inning, they manufactured a run to take a 1-0 lead. Third baseman Zach Fisher led off with a bloop single to right field. After junior second baseman Pat Fitzgerald bunted him to second base, Fisher stole third. He scored the first run of the game when junior designated hitter Kurt Wertz grounded out to shortstop.
The Tigers’ 1-0 was short-lived however. Sophomore first baseman Corey Dick led off the second inning by belting his seventh home run of the season over the left field fence to tie the game. Later in the inning, the Tiger infield came to the rescue of sophomore righthander Nick Cioffi by turning a double play. It was Towson’s 60th double play of the season, tying the school record.
In the top of the third inning, the Tigers broke the school record when they turned their 61st double play of the season.
In the bottom of the third, the Tigers rallied to take a lead when sophomore righthander Jordan Ramsey struggled with his control. With one out, Butler singled to centerfield on a 3-2 pitch. After he reached second base on a wild pitch, Fisher drew a walk. When Fitzgerald doubled to left center, Butler scored to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead with runners on second and third. After Wertz drew a walk, the Tigers had the bases loaded.
Senior righthander Sean Bertrand relieved Cioffi in the top of the fourth inning after Cioffi was injured on a line drive off his leg in the third. He hit Dick with a pitch to lead off the inning and junior third baseman Ryan LaGrange singled to left to put two runners on base. Senior designated hitter Matt Keeler bunted both runners into scoring position before junior catcher Drew Farber hit a line drive that glanced off Butler’s glove at first base. The play went for a single as Dick scored the tying run. Once again, the Tiger defense came to the aid of a Tiger pitcher as Fitzgerald turned a ground ball by freshman centerfielder Ryan Linkous into the Tigers’ third double play of the game.
With the score tied at 2-2 in the fifth inning, the Seahawks rallied to take the lead. Freshman shortstop Terence Connelly led off with a single to right. With one out, senior rightfielder Tyler Molinaro drew a walk. Sophomore leftfielder Luke Dunlap came through with another clutch hit, an RBI double down the left field line to give the Seahawks a 3-2 advantage. At that point, Nowottnick relieved freshman Garrett Walther. He pitched out of the jam by striking out Dick and retiring LaGrange on a ground ball up the middle as junior shortstop Hunter Bennett made a tremendous play. He ranged far to his left and threw out LaGrange by a step.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Tigers tied the game for the third time when Butler blasted his third home run of the season over the left field fence. Two outs later, Wertz launched his seventh homer of the season, a towering shot over the rightfield fence that gave Towson a 4-3 lead.
UNCW opened the sixth inning by putting its first two batters on base against Nowottnick. Keeler drew a walk and Farber singled. However, Nowottnick struck out Linkous before retiring Connelly on a fly ball and Bass on a ground ball to first.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Tigers broke the game open with three runs to extend their lead to 7-3. Fratantuono led off with a double down the right field line. After junior centerfielder Brandon Gonnella bunted him to third base, senior catcher Andrew Parker lined a single to left to drive in Fratantuono. Parker advanced to second base on a wild pitch. After Bennett grounded out, Butler lined a triple to left centerfield, driving in Parker. When Connelly’s relay throw to third base went into the Tiger dugout, Butler scored to make it a 7-3 lead.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Tigers added another run. Fitzgerald led off with a single. Then, Wertz doubled down the rightfield line as Fratantuono scored to make it an 8-3 advantage. However, junior righthander Ricky Holden pitched out of the jam by retiring three hitters in a row.
LaGrange led off the eighth inning with a double to give the Seahawks renewed life. But, Nowottnick retired Keeler and Farber on ground balls to second base as LaGrange scored to make it an 8-4 lead. Nowottnick struck out Linkous to end the inning.
In the top of the ninth inning, Nowottnick retired the first two hitters and seemed to be on his way to finishing off the victory. With two outs, Molinaro hit a ground ball to Fitzgerald at second base. It looked like the third out until the ball took a bad hop over the second baseman’s shoulder and Molinaro was on with a hit. When Dunlap, who batted .667 in the weekend series, drew a walk, the Seahawks had two runners on base with two outs.
At that point, Gonnella came in from his centerfield position to relieve Nowottnick. On a 2-2 pitch, Dick lifted a high fly ball down the left field line a few feet fair for a single as Molinaro scored to make it an 8-5 lead. However, Gonnella struck out LaGrange on an 0-2 pitch to nail down the win and earn his first save of the season.
“This was big series for us,” said Coach Gottlieb. “I think a lot of teams in the CAA were expecting to pick up ground on us this weekend while we played UNCW. Instead, we improved our position for the CAA Tournament. We did a very good job of situational hitting all weekend and it means a lot to beat a good team like UNCW.”
Butler, who batted .500 in the series against UNCW, led the Tigers with three hits, including a single, a triple and a home run. He also scored three runs and had two RBI’s. Wertz also had a very productive weekend against the Seahawks. He batted .444 with two doubles, a triple, a home run and six RBI’s in the series. On Sunday, he was two-for-three with three RBI’s.
Each team had 11 hits in the series finale. While Butler led the Tigers with three hits, Fitzgerald, Wertz and Parker each had a pair of hits. Dick, LaGrange and Farber each had two hits for the Seahawks.
For UNC Wilmington, it marked the third consecutive series loss to Towson at Schuerholz Park.
The Tigers, who are at .500 for the fifth time this season, return to action on Tuesday night with a night game at Maryland.