With good reason. Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson knew they had procured young talent in last year's recruiting class. Still freshmen must be put on the field for a first time to show their stuff in real competition. Also, these kids were going up against a Rhode Island roster that only lost game-one in the final at-at bat of Friday's opener.
The result was as much relief as excitement for everyone involved. "Our pitchers did a great job today," said senior 1B Connor Powers, who had a pretty great day himself with a pair of solo home runs and three total hits and RBI in the victory. His production would have been sufficient for the win as things played out, but none of the new kids on the hill complained about all the extra insurance.
Nor was any first-time anxiety in evidence, least of all from Stratton. "The coaches prepared me in every way and I just felt really comfortable out there," the righthander said. "You have nerves in the beginning but once you get the first out it's good."
Very good, in fact. Stratton put in six complete innings on his debut day, tossing just 86 pitches in the process. He struck out seven Rams while allowing just four hits and a couple of walks. Best of all he never showed any strain.
"He was hitting 90, 91 most of the game," Cohen reported. "And his breaking ball was pretty good." It certainly was as Rhode Island batters, of either hand, could not get a consistent read on how Stratton was working both sides of the plate with it. "That's a pitch we like to go to, we've been working with it big-time in fall and early spring," Stratton said.
There were some challenges of course, and Stratton had to cope with a pair of first-inning runners on a single and bunt-hit with two outs. A strikeout of designated hitter Adam Derner ended that threat. A two-out hit by URI's best batter, Oliver Palmer, in the third meant nothing, nor a leadoff safety in the fourth. And the kid never flustered. "Not really, once you settle in it's like any other game." Easy enough for Stratton to say, as he joined teammate Nick Routt as true frosh pitchers who won their opening games as Bulldogs. Routt also did it on day-two of last season, by some coincidence.
Losing lefthander Chris Pickering didn't have nearly as good a day, charged with State's first four runs on three hits and two walks for his two-plus innings. He was just two outs into the afternoon when he ran up against Powers for the first time and tried a first-pitch fastball. State's first baseman rifled it out beyond leftfield. Two innings later the pair met again and this time Powers waited an offering before Pickering tried to come-in with another fastball.
"The first one I didn't think was going to go out," Powers said. "The second one the way the wind was blowing I was hoping it was going to carry it out." It did by a good margin, giving Powers his seventh two-homer day as a Dog.
The second shot made it a 3-0 game as in the second inning Pickering loaded the bases by hitting 3B Jet Butler and SS Jonathan Ogden, around a clean single from LF Trey Johnson in his first at-bat as a Bulldog. A one-out fly ball to rightfield by 2B Nick Vickerson scored the sacrifice.
But after Powers' second shot things got even worse for the Rams as a walk of DH Russ Sneed meant a pitching change and righty Ken Graveline inheriting the runner. Or adding one himself as Butler dropped a hit behind second base. Johnson reached on a single to the left side to fill all posts for Ogden to score Sneed on a fly ball to center. CF Jaron Shepherd drew a walk to re-load the paths, and Graveline plunked Vickerson in the back for a 5-0 lead. RF Ryan Collins delivered his second two-run single in as many days and C Cody Freeman drove in the eighth run with a hit.
This left State's coaches the luxury of working Stratton as long as they wished before testing some of his classmates. "We didn't want him to go more than 80 pitches," Cohen said, "but he didn't lose velocity and he was able to work both sides of the plate. And his breaking ball is so much ‘off' his fastball, ten to 15 miles per hour off."
After six though it was time for the change and righty Graveman got the call. He didn't begin as crisply, issuing a walk and a base hit to the 7-8 batters. Rhode Island called in a pinch-hitter, lefthander Sean Caron, for the bottom of the order slot to challenge the new kid, but Graveman sent him fishing after a fastball-outside for the strikeout.
Even after a wild pitch advanced the two runners the freshman kept his poise and delivered an unusual twin-killing by diving flat-out for a grounder off order-topper Mike Lebel's bat. Lead runner Rob Noe froze half-way home and before he could get back Graveman made the throw. Butler relayed to the middle back to end the inning and preserve the shutout. "He made a great play there," said Powers. "Just a good job by him staying in there."
"He can really field his position," Cohen agreed. Graveman put in two full innings with just the one hit and walk against him and a strikeout, sitting the side in the eighth. "He had tremendous movement, he had problems controlling that movement for a little while," said Cohen. "But he settled down." Watson got to take care of the ninth inning with nobody reaching and two strikeouts, both on very low spottings that Ram batters could not lay off.
"We wanted Watson to face a lefthander for the first time out there, and he did," Cohen said. "I thought Cody Freeman did a great job behind the plate with all those guys."
State padded the final margin in their eighth as a Collins drive to left-center was off the glove of sub-centerfielder Caron for a triple. Powers collected his third RBI with a bouncing single up the box. Collins also had a three-hit day, and Vickerson drove in a pair of teammates without a base hit. Still there was some frustration with the offense on the whole. "You just have to keep scoring runs because you never know what can happen," said Powers.
"We pug together the one big inning but for that four-inning stretch in the middle we did not take good swings and that's a concern for us," Cohen said. "But overall it was a good day, especially when your freshmen get their feet wet. We're really pleased with their start."
It will be an old Dog getting the game-three start as senior Tyler Whitney will be given the ball. Cohen certainly hopes to get the game under control so other arms can get their own first experiences, as well as get starter-turned-reliever Devin Jones some needed work.