RICHMOND, Va. – Sophomore third baseman Joey Cujas, the leading hitter in the Colonial Athletic Association, led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a double and scored the winning run on an infield single by senior first baseman Brent Mikionis as Virginia Commonwealth University (10-6, 2-1) overcame a 7-0 deficit to edge the Tigers (6-7, 1-2) by 9-8 in the third and deciding game of the teams’ three-game CAA weekend series at The Diamond on Sunday afternoon.
VCU won the series, two games to one. After VCU took the series opener by 6-3 on Friday night, the Tigers came from behind to pull out a 3-2 win on Saturday afternoon setting up Sunday’s deciding game.
The Rams, who used a four-run rally in the fourth inning and a four-run uprising in the eighth to tie the game, receiving outstanding relief pitching from freshman lefthander Matt Lees and senior righthander Seth Cutler-Voltz. They combined to hold the Tigers to one run on two hits over the final five innings.
Lees pitched four innings of relief and gave up one run on two hits while Cutler-Voltz, who earned the win, pitched a scoreless ninth inning. Their pitching set the stage for the Rams’ comeback.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Cujas, who came into the game with a .462 batting average, led off with a double to left field against the Tigers’ Brandon Gonnella, their fifth pitcher of the contest. Senior catcher Taylor Perkins was intentionally walked to set up a force play at any base. Junior Taylor Buran came on as a pinch hitter and he sacrificed the runners to second and third base. When Mikionis hit a ground ball to the left of Tiger shortstop Hunter Bennett, Cujas beat the throw to the plate, scoring the winning run.
For VCU, it was the Rams’ fifth win in their last six games. The win came one day after the Tigers rallied in the ninth inning for a 3-2 victory over the Rams.
In the series finale, the Tigers took a 2-0 lead in the first inning when sophomore second baseman Pat Fitzgerald led off with a single and scored when sophomore rightfielder Dominic Fratantuono blasted his first home run of the season, a two-run shot down the right field line.
In the third inning, the Tigers took advantage of some sloppy defense by VCU to score three unearned runs. With one out, freshman first baseman Brendan Butler singled to right. Fratantuono followed with a single to put two runners on base. After junior catcher Andrew Parker struck out, Gonnella reached on an error by VCU shortstop Vimael Machin, loading the bases. Senior centerfielder Ben Winter also hit a ground ball to Machin. Machin made a throwing error, allowing Butler and Fratantuono to score for a 4-0 advantage. With runners at the corners, Winter was trapped off first base. While he was trapped in a rundown, Gonnella scored from third base to give the Tigers a 5-0 lead.
In the fourth inning, freshman leftfielder Peter Bowles led off with a single and advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Zach Fisher. After Bennett drew a walk, Fitzgerald singled to right field, driving in Bowles for a 6-0 advantage. When Butler grounded out to shortstop, Bennett scored to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
After breezing through the first three innings, sophomore righthander Chris Acker ran into trouble in the fourth. Junior second baseman Jordan Weymouth led off by reaching base when he was hit by a pitch. A walk to Cujas gave VCU two runners on base with no outs. Perkins got VCU on the scoreboard when he doubled down the left field line, scoring Weymouth to make it a 7-1 game. Ayers’ sacrifice fly to centerfield drove in Cujas to cut the deficit to 7-2. The Rams got even closer when Mikionis smashed a two-run homer down the left field line.
With the lead trimmed to 7-4, Machin reached base on an error by Bennett, the Tigers’ shortstop. Acker got the second out when he struck out junior rightfielder Nick Kime. When he issued a four-pitch walk to senior leftfielder Paul Nice, he was relieved by freshman righthander Paul Beers. Beers ended the threat when he retired sophomore centerfielder Bill Cullen on a fly ball to centerfield.
Now trailing by 7-4, the Rams also went to their bullpen as Lees replaced Kyle Pelchy in the fifth inning and retired the Tigers in order.
In the sixth inning, the Tigers added another run. Fisher opened the inning by drawing a walk. He went to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Bennett. Moments later, Fitzgerald came through with his third hit of the game, a single to center field that drove in Fisher to make it an 8-4 lead.
The Tigers took their 8-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning before the Rams rallied. VCU took advantage of control problems by Tiger pitching and a huge error to tie the game. Perkins opened the inning with a single to centerfield. When Ayers also singled, senior righthander Tyler Austin came in to relieve freshman righthander Nick Cioffi with runners on first and third. Perkins scored on a wild pitch before Austin hit Mikionis with a pitch, bringing the tying run to the plate.
With two runners on base and no outs, Gonnella relieved Austin. He got the first out by retiring Machin on a fly ball to left field. When Landon Prentiss hit a sacrifice fly to center field, Ayers scored to cut the deficit to 8-6 with two outs. Nice kept the rally going when he hit a bloop double to right field, driving in Mikionis to pull VCU within 8-7. It looked like Gonnella would escape the inning with the lead intact when he got Cullen to hit a ground ball to Fisher at third base. But, Fisher made a throwing error, allowing Nice to score. Gonnella finally retired the side by getting Weymouth to ground out back to the mound.
In the top of the ninth inning, Cutler-Voltz came out of the bullpen to retire the Tigers in order, setting the stage for VCU’s walk-off victory.
The Rams, who outhit the Tigers by a 9-8 margin, were led by Perkins, who had two hits and scored two runs. Mikionis had one hit and drew a walk but he scored two runs and drove in three. Nice also had two hits and had one RBI.
Fitzgerald, who batted .385 in the three-game series, led the Tigers with three hits and two RBI’s. He also scored a run. Fratantuono was two-for-three and scored two runs with a pair of RBI’s.
The Tigers backed their pitching by turning three double plays.
The Tigers return to action on Tuesday afternoon when they host Buffalo in the first game of a five-game home stand.