The East Tennessee State baseball team played with fire all day. Eventually the Bucs got burned.
ETSU committed four errors, and J.C. Coban’s three-run double in the top of the eighth inning gave Penn State a 6-4 victory on Friday and sent the crowd of 910 at Thomas Stadium’s official debut home disappointed.
“We made the game difficult today,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “It’s a hard enough game as it is, but we really made it difficult.”
The Bucs lost despite hitting three home runs. Junior first baseman Clinton Freeman had a dream season opener with two solo homers and a triple.
ETSU was clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning, thanks to some fine escape work from starting pitcher Kerry Doane, who worked six innings.
An error by ETSU third baseman Alex Reynolds put runners on second and third with one out. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Jared Burton was relieved by Will Chesney.
Chesney struck out J.J. White on a 3-2 fastball before Coban belted a line drive over the head of ETSU center fielder Andrew Green, who was playing shallow.
Coban was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple, but the damage had been done and Penn State had a 5-3 lead.
“I did think he played a little shallow,” said Coban, a sophomore catcher who was in the lineup as the designated hitter. “I was hoping to get a little bit under it. I thought it was hit right at him. I squared up pretty nice. It felt great.”
Four of Penn State’s runs were unearned.
“Going into the ninth we had just as many errors as hits,” Skole said. “You’re not gonna win many ballgames like that. An inning before that, we had the lead. We were playing through some of our mistakes.”
Freeman, a product of David Crockett High School, hit the ball hard in all four of his at-bats. He lived up to the preseason billing as the Atlantic Sun Conference’s top first baseman.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Skole said. “The kid can just hit. He’s just got such a good approach. He’s got an idea of what he’s doing in the batter’s box. He’s a very mature hitter.”
ETSU’s defensive problems directly contributed to Penn State’s first run. Steve Snyder hit a nubber in front of the mound. Doane fielded it cleanly and sidearmed the ball into right field for a two-base error. Luis Montesinos followed with a ground ball through ETSU shortstop Chris Riopedre’s legs to score the day’s first run.
The defense then bailed Doane out. Left fielder Dylan Tritsch made a leaping catch against the wall and Riopedre made a tough play in the hole for a force out at second to get out of the jam.
ETSU catcher Mason Hershey hit a solo home run in the bottom of the third inning for his team’s first hit, tying the game 1-1.
The Nittany Lions regained the lead on James Coates’ RBI single in the fourth inning.
Freeman ripped a triple to the 400-foot mark in center field in the bottom of the fourth. He then tied the game at 2-2 when he scored on Derek Niesman’s sacrifice fly.
Meanwhile, Doane was flirting with disaster, but managed to escape largely unscathed. He got out of jams with runners on second and third twice in the first five innings.
The senior righty gave up seven hits and two runs in his six innings.
“He didn’t have his best stuff today, but he really competed,” Skole said. “He gave us a chance to win.”
Doane’s 106-pitch Houdini act enabled ETSU to remain close enough to take its first lead of the season when Freeman blasted a ball over the right field wall for a 3-2 advantage in the bottom of the sixth.
“It’s just the first game, you’re trying not to do a whole lot,” Freeman said. “You have to get your front foot down and try to work and basically trust yourself and what your hands can do.”
Penn State had runners on second and third again in the seventh, this time off of Burton, but the Bucs escaped when Reynolds backhanded a slow roller and threw to first. Freeman stretched every inch of his 6-2 frame to pull it in for the final out.
Penn State, which added an insurance run in the ninth on Taylor Skerpon’s sacrifice fly, wound up stranding 13 runners. The Bucs, who finished with five hits, stranded just one. They were 0 for 2 in the stolen-base category.
Coban and Ryky Smith each had three of Penn State’s 11 hits.
Reliever Cody Lewis earned the win with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless work. Penn State starter David Walking gave up four hits and three runs in six innings.
Burton was credited with the loss.
“It was a good game, both sides,” Penn State coach Robbie Wine said. “It was a good college game, especially for opening day. I know they had a few errors they’d love to have back, but both teams battled very good.”
The two teams are scheduled to play again today at 1:05 p.m. The series finale is scheduled for Sunday at 1:05 p.m.