The Texas A&M baseball team used great pitching and timely hitting to aid a late-weekend rally and win their series over Rutgers, two games to one. The first ever meeting between the two teams, who both made the 2007 postseason, turned out to be an exciting one for the over 10,000 fans who braved two days of miserably cold weather to make through the Olsen Field turnstiles.
With the pair of wins, A&M moves to 11-3 on the season and have just a pair of tune-up games this mid-week before Big 12 play begins this Friday.
Though the season record itself is nothing to scoff at and it's quite easy for fans to be greedy with the win column, Rob Childress and staff have to feel like they let a sweep get away from them. A&M seemed in full control during Saturday's 2-1 and Sunday's 12-3 victories, and likewise had every reason to be excited through the first six innings of Friday's contest, where A&M led 5-3 entering the seventh frame before the wheels came off.
Murphy's law prevailed in that seventh frame, as the Scarlet Knights scratched five runs across off of just three hits, relying more on three walks, two wild pitches, a passed ball, and a pair of questionable infield defensive decisions to get those runs home. The Aggies were undeterred and quickly tied the game back up at eight, but surrendered another pair of runs in the top of the eighth inning and then failed to capitalize on their own opportunity in the bottom of that frame, Dane Carter and Blake Stouffer were both in scoring position with one out but couldn't be driven home by the fourth and fifth batters in the line-up, Jose Duran and Luke Anders. A&M went quietly in the ninth for the loss.
It's easy to point fingers at the pitching staff after giving up ten runs, and that game was certainly the worst on the hill this year, but there were positives. True freshman Barret Loux took the hill for his first career Friday night start and threw a solid game, allowing four hits and three runs in six innings, while striking out six and walking just two along the way. Many saw Loux as a Friday night caliber pitcher once he arrived on campus, and though his introduction to that role came much sooner than many expected, he performed well within it.
The youth movement in the rotation continued on Saturday night, where Brooks Raley spun a gem in his first career start. His final stat line, no runs and three hits allowed in 7.2 innings pitched while striking out ten and walking just two, is spectacular but still doesn't do his performance justice. Raley looked like a hardened veteran on the hill, showing solid command and very good off-speed pitches to complement a low-90s fastball. There were still flashes of youth within the performance, but the tall lefty from Uvalde should be joining Loux atop a weekend rotation that will be impressive (though growing pains are likely) for the '08 Big 12 run and beyond.
Travis Starling gave up an uncontested run after a lead-off double in the ninth, but still earned his fourth save and is on an early pace to pass Scott Beerer's single-season record for saves (13).
Sunday's contest was another offensive explosion, but this time the pitchers held it together to earn the series win. Scott Migl was much more erratic than usual, and gave up three runs in three innings to show for the inconsistency. Kirkland Rivers allowed three hits in 1.1 innings before giving way to Carson Middleton in the fifth. Middleton had shown great stuff as a mid-week starter in his only two appearances of the year, but came in and mowed Rutgers down to possibly lock down a larger role for weekend contests. He struck out five in 4.2 innings pitched, allowing no runs or walks while surrendering just three hits and moving his record to 3-0.
As statistics go, the weekend was a good one for the Aggie offense. The team hit .320 on the weekend, reached base at a .390 clip and stroked eight extra base hits for a .437 slugging percentage. The speed game was on-target, as A&M swiped nine bags (were caught just once) and used small ball to move another three runners ahead on the basepaths. Rutgers pitching, specifically their starters, were the best that A&M has seen all year and kept them off balance enough to earn 25 strikeouts, by far A&M's highest series total of the year.
Individually, the Aggies continue to be led by Carter, whose 7-for-12 weekend has moved his season average all the way to .491. He scored four runs, swiped a pair of bases and walked twice compared to just a single strikeout (.643 OBP). More importantly than the raw numbers, though, is that Carter is settling very well into his role in the number two spot as a hybrid "get-on-base and set-the-table" hitter.
Luke Anders had a fantastic weekend series and seems to have emerged from his early season cocoon. Despite an 0-for-4 Saturday, he ended the weeked at 7-for-14 (.500) with a homer and five RBIs. Add in his midweek performance against Nicholls State, and Anders' week finishes at .529 with two homers and 10 RBI. He's now followed up a 2-for-16 (.125) start with a 14-for-25 (.560) run in his last seven games.
Jose Duran also continues to impress with his style of play, and his stat lines back up that perception. The shortstop hit .500 on the weekend (6-for-12), scoring five times and driving in six runs. A pair of doubles and triples helped provide a ridiculous 1.00 slugging percentage. He's now hit safely in nine of the last eleven games.
Overall, this series provided a solid barometer for where A&M currently stands. Rutgers is a solid but certainly not spectacular club, and has the talent and gamesmanship similar to what will be seen of a 3-seed in the NCAA Regionals. The Aggies were certainly the better and more talented squad, which they certainly should be given the returning players and last year's success, but some inconsistencies still plague different parts of the Aggie game and cost them a game that they should have won.
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