Clutch hit lifts VMI over JMU
Edited by Chris Graham
Graham Sullivan’s two-run double in the seventh inning gave No. 29 VMI a 3-2 lead over James Madison they would not relinquish in non-conference baseball action Wednesday evening at Gray-Minor Stadium. The win continues VMI’s best start in program history at 25-5, while the Dukes fall to 15-14 with the loss.
When these teams met two weeks ago, JMU held on in a wild, 17-13 contest in Harrisonburg. On Wednesday, pitchers ruled the day, as JMU starter Alex Valadja (1-3) and VMI starter Travis Thomas locked up in an early battle.
The Keydets took a 1-0 lead in the second inning, when Ombri Rivers slugged the first home run of his career, a shot to left field on a 1-2 delivery. Thomas, meanwhile, cruised along through the first 4.2 innings before allowing an infield single to Mike Fabiaschi and a two-run home run to Matt Townsend that chased him from the game.
VMI then rallied in the seventh, as Jacob Morley led off with a double to the right-center field gap before Sam Roberts drew a walk. Cory Spangenberg followed with a hot-shot to JMU first baseman Trevor Knight, who was playing in, expecting a bunt. Knight made the play and got an out at second base, spelling the end of the evening for Valadja.
JMU closer Kevin Munson came on to pitch to the third hitter in the Keydet lineup, Jordan Ballard, and retired him on strikes for the second out. Sullivan came through on the second pitch he saw, however, drilling a deep drive to center field, plating both runners.
VMI reliever John Garrett (4-0), who came on with two runners on in the seventh, needed just one pitch to escape the rally. Given the lead in the eighth, he retired the Dukes in order, giving way to Michael Devine, who picked up his sixth save of the season by striking out the final two hitters he faced in a scoreless ninth.
“I was really proud to see us grind this one out, it was a really great college baseball game,” said VMI head coach Marlin Ikenberry. “We didn’t execute offensively early in the game, but it’s good to get a win when you don’t execute. It came down to one swing of the bat by Graham Sullivan, who had a great at bat against one of the premier closers in the country in Kevin Munson.”
Ballard went 3 for 4 with a pair of doubles, while Sullivan and Morley collected two-baggers for their only hits of the game. Rivers’ lone hit cleared the left field wall, while Alex Haitsuka had singles in each of his first two at bats after hitting for the cycle in four at bats the night before.
“When you get in tight games, there’s nobody else you want coming to the plate other than Jordan Ballard, Graham Sullivan and Tanner Biagini,” said Ikenberry. “I wouldn’t want to face any of those guys in the middle of our lineup. They do a great job of getting good pitches to hit. Unfortunately, we didn’t get good pitches to hit until the seventh inning.”
Thomas allowed two runs on five hits in his 4.2 innings of work, striking out five while walking just one in the longest appearance of his freshman season. Chris Duty worked two scoreless innings, while Garrett retired all four batters he faced. Devine allowed just one base runner to pick up his third save in a week.
“Travis Thomas did a great job in his first career start,” said Ikenberry. “He had some jitters in the first inning, but he settled down and did a nice job of getting us in the ballgame. Chris Duty did a great job in the middle innings, and John Garrett came in and got us out of trouble in the seventh. Michael Devine came in, and his stuff was electric tonight. I was really impressed with the job our bullpen did in a tight contest to throw up zeroes in the back-half of the ballgame.”
Valadja’s final line showed three runs allowed on seven hits through 6.1 innings. Munson allowed both runners that he inherited to score, though he did strike out four of the seven hitters he faced while allowing two hits.
“It was one of those games that it felt like I was pulling teeth to get our offense going,” said Ikenberry. “Alex Valadja did a great job. We faced him two weeks ago and we got him out of the game early. Today, he was locating pitches down in the zone and keeping our hitters off-balance.”
Each of the top four hitters in the JMU lineup had a pair of knocks, including Townsend, who had a double, a home run and both of the team’s RBIs. Matt Tenaglia was 1 for 3 on the evening, collecting the Dukes’ only other extra-base hit, a double.
VMI returns to Big South Conference action Friday, taking on Gardner-Webb in the first of a three-game series. First pitch is set for 6 p.m. at Harley Park in Spartanburg, S.C. on the campus of USC Upstate.