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VMI takes opener from Gardner-Webb

Graham Sullivan had the game-turning home run, Justin Hess also went deep and four different players drove in two runs apiece, leading a season-best offensive output as the VMI Keydets defeated the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs, 11-8, in Big South baseball action in Lexington, Va. Friday night.

After VMI (14-11-1, 4-3 Big South) had batted around in the third, scoring five times and knocking out GWU starter Brandon Boling, Gardner-Webb got back into the game with a single run in the fifth and two in the sixth, cutting the margin to 7-5. In the home half of the sixth, Sam Roberts had a two-out sacrifice fly and on the next pitch, Sullivan hit a towering home run to center field to give the Keydets a 10-5 lead, an edge that would prove to be insurmountable.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs (15-7-1, 3-4 Big South) tacked on three runs in a late rally, but Alan Watts went the final 3 2/3 innings for his third save of the season to close out the win. The game was VMI’s first at Gray-Minor Stadium since March 5, a span of 26 days, the longest period between Keydet home games since 2000.

Coby Cowgill picked up the win for VMI, moving to 3-0 on the year. Cowgill allowed more than one earned run for the first time since Feb. 23, as he gave up five runs (three earned) in 5 1/3 innings of work. Watts surrendered three earned runs over his 3 2/3 frames, while GWU’s Boling (1-2) was hit hard, surrendering six earned runs over 2 1/3 innings.

The Keydets jumped on the board in the second, as Alex Haitsuka continued his hot hitting with a leadoff double. Jacob Morley was hit by a pitch, and Rob Dickinson walked to load the bases. The next batter, Justin Topping, hit a sacrifice fly to left field to give VMI the early lead, 1-0.

The visitors came right back in the third, as with one out, second baseman Daniel Merck grounded to third. Chase Worthington’s throw to first was high and past first baseman George Piccirilli, allowing Merck to move to second, and the next batter, Jake Watts, drew a walk. One out later, Adam McFarland ripped a two-run double down the right field line, giving the Runnin’ Bulldogs a 2-1 advantage.

VMI took the lead for good in the third, plating five runs in the frame. With one out, Roberts reached on a bunt single and moved to second on a balk. Sullivan then walked, and Piccirilli drove both runners home with a double to right-center. Haitsuka followed with his second two-bagger of the day, plating Piccirilli and pushing the Keydet lead to 4-2. One batter later, Dickinson had an RBI double and Topping drove in Morley with a ground ball, giving the Keydets a five-spot in the inning and a 6-2 lead.

Cowgill shut the visitors down in the fourth, helped by a spectacular defensive play by Hess, and the VMI second baseman then led off the next inning. He hit a 2-1 pitch over the wall in left-center for his second home run of the year, putting VMI up 7-2. Merck responded with his own leadoff home run in the sixth, and GWU would tack on a pair of additional runs in the sixth to pull within three, 7-5.

Topping started the sixth-inning rally with a single, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Worthington and to third on a passed ball. After Hess was hit by a pitch, Roberts flied out to center field to plate Topping, setting the stage for Sullivan’s home run and VMI’s 10-5 advantage.

Gardner-Webb added a run in the eighth, but an RBI single for Hess in the bottom half negated it, and GWU could only manage two runs in the ninth as VMI won, 11-8.

Offensively, Sullivan, Piccirilli, Hess and Topping all drove in two runs, while Hess also had two hits and scored twice to help move VMI to 7-2 at home this season. Haitsuka and Hess are both heating up, as the VMI catcher is 6 for his last 14 (.429) while the second baseman is 6 for 13 over the past four games (.462)

Gardner-Webb was led by Zeke Blanton and John Harris, who had three hits apiece in the setback.

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