The Bucs defeated North Florida 8-5 at Thomas Stadium Saturday for a series-clinching win and their third straight home win overall. ETSU evened its overall record at 17-17 and improved to 6-5 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Ospreys fell to 15-20 and 6-8.
As in basketball, ETSU coach Tony Skole said it’s important to protect the home turf. Also similar to the 12th Man with Texas A&M football, Skole said the crowd plays a big part in the Bucs’ success at home.
“Our crowd is great and it’s a great place to watch a ballgame,” Skole said. “I know our guys enjoy playing here. When we get things going, the crowd really gets behind us and they get enthused. It’s an exciting environment to play college baseball in.”
Clinton Freeman had his own cheering section with his church youth group in attendance, and the senior All-American delivered for them.
Freeman, who was placed on the Golden Spikes Award watch list earlier this week, had a two-run double in the fifth inning to give the Bucs a 6-2 lead and added another double in the seventh inning.
He ended 2-for-3 and also walked once at the plate, finishing with two RBIs and two runs scored. He also came in as the closer in the final inning, and picked up his eighth save of the season and the18th of his career, which tied him with Caleb Moore for second-place on the ETSU all-time list.
“When I first came in as a freshman, I saw all the All-Americans up on the wall,” Freeman said. “I thought about all the hard work and time they put into it. To be in a group with Paul Hoilman, Bo Reeder and Caleb Moore, that’s something special definitely.”
Trent Higginbothem gave North Florida the early lead, hitting a ground-rule double to score Drew Weeks in the top of the first. Corbin Olmstead then added a solo home run over left field for the Ospreys in the third inning.
ETSU came back to take the 3-2 lead in the bottom of the third. Chris Riopedre had a two-run double to score Gage Downey and Freeman. When the cut-off man hit Freeman with the throw, it was a North Florida error which allowed Riopedre to score. The Bucs then expanded on the lead with three runs in the bottom of the fifth.
Chris Cook had a RBI double, followed by a two-run single by Freeman for a 6-2 advantage.
The Ospreys came back with three runs off three straight RBI singles in the top of the seventh. Kyle Brooks, Drew Weeks and Trent Higginbothem accounted for the hits, with Weeks on third base when reliever Jared Burton took over for ETSU starter Jimmy Nesselt.
Burton retired the next two batters to end the rally as the Bucs held a 6-5 lead in the middle of the seventh.
ETSU responded with pinch hitter Jordan Sanford belting a two-run single to right field with bases loaded.
“Coach trusted me in that situation, so I came up and got a big hit for the team,” Sanford said. “We talk about momentum and when they scored those three, it took the momentum from us, but we responded and got it right back. It was good to have a little cushion there with Freeman going out in the ninth to get an easy save. Now we just have to come back and be ready for game three.”
Nesselt (3-3) picked up the win on a day he gave up five runs (four earned) and 11 hits over 6 1/3 innings.
Leadoff hitter Jeremy Taylor went 2-for-4, while Cook and Gage Downey each finished with two runs scored.
Skole likes his team’s recent production, particularly at the top of the order.
“J.T. (Taylor) sets the table for us, and when he’s on base, he creates a lot of havoc for us,” Skole said. “Chris Cook has been playing great and of course, Clinton is doing his thing as he has all year. Then, it’s great to see Chris Riopedre get a big hit today. They walk Clinton to get to him and he has a bases-clearing double. When those four guys get it going, we’re tough to beat.”
The series finale is set for today at 1:05 p.m. with freshman left-hander Jamin McCann scheduled to start for the Bucs.