Dylan Pratt went deep three times Saturday, but East Tennessee State descended deeper into the Atlantic Sun Conference standings.
Pratt hit three solo home runs, including a two-out shot on an 0-2 pitch that tied the score at 7 in the ninth inning. But USC Upstate right-hander Chad Sobotka didn’t allow another hit, and was rewarded with a victory thanks, in part, to Luke Weber’s two-out RBI single in the 11th.
The 8-7 loss at Thomas Stadium dropped ETSU (4-10, 16-17) below .500 and into the Atlantic Sun Conference cellar — a half-game behind Jacksonville. The Buccaneers have lost five of six overall and seven of eight in the league.
It looked like the worm was turning for the Bucs after Pratt capped a five-run rally to force extra innings. Matthew Scruggs and Pratt hit back-to-back home runs to conclude a four-run seventh that trimmed the Spartans’ lead to 7-6. And when Pratt completed his hat trick two innings later with the Bucs down to their last strike, the three-game series suddenly seemed destined to be salvaged.
But Gaither Bumgardner hit a one-out double in the 11th, and Luke Weber's single scored him one out later.
“Our guys — we battled so hard, and it’s tough when you don’t come out with the W,” Pratt said. “It’s tough when you make a comeback like that and get the momentum swinging your way and ... I really thought we were gonna get that one. It’s a tough one to swallow.”
Left-handed reliever Clinton Freeman (1-1) deserved a better fate. He allowed one run on three hits and no walks while striking out four in four innings, and made a pretty good offspeed pitch to Weber with a 2-2 count.
“I thought the at-bat that Weber had with Freeman on the mound was just a tremendous at-bat,” said Upstate coach Matt Fincher, whose Spartans improved to 9-5 in the league and 24-12 overall. “I thought that East Tennessee State pitched him great. They mixed him differently than what I thought they were gonna do, and Luke was still able to barrel the ball and get the game-winning hit.”
Weber finished 4-for-6 with three runs and two RBIs, though one of the hits was a misplayed pop-up on the infield. The Bucs infield officially committed two errors.
“It’s disheartening to fight back like that, because we haven’t had many where we were actually behind and we were able to put something together,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “So I was really pleased with the heart our guys showed to get back in it. But we lost this game in the middle innings. ... We had an error. We drop an infield pop-up.”
Pratt appeared to have powered them through it. Two of his home runs were well in excess of 400 feet, including the one in the ninth. It was still pretty much on a line when it caromed off the steal crossbeam on what will eventually be a scoreboard beyond left-center field.
“I’d fouled off two fastballs and it was 0-2,” said Pratt, who is hitting .325 with 13 home runs and beginning to get his timing down since going to a more open stance that Skole suggested. “So I got up on the plate and was just gonna try to battle. I thought he might try to freeze me with one inside. I just tried to be short to the ball and got lucky and hit it pretty flush and it got out.”
It wasn’t a typical 0-2 swing.
“That ball was hit pretty hard wasn’t it,” Skole said, “especially with two outs and it’s down to your last strike. ... Dylan’s struggled a little bit for us this year, just in big situations. But today, he tried to put us on his back. He had some great swings. ... As anemic as we are offensively, we definitely need his bat to catch fire for us. He was very locked in today.”
The Bucs won the home run battle 4-0, but Upstate out-hit them 15-8.
“Give their kids credit there in the last inning,” Skole said. “The two hole, Bumgardner, hits the double, and then the good swing the kid put on a two-strike changeup into right for the game-winner for them. I thought Clinton battled his tail off to give us a chance to win that game.”
Fincher didn’t exactly believe his team was going to bounce back after Pratt bounced one off the scoreboard skeleton.
“It borderlines on unbelieveable,” Fincher said. “You know, you think you have the game won and then Pratt turns a ball around and now the game is not won. I mentioned to my assistant, Dusty Blake, ‘Boy, our guys look down. We’ve got real issues here.’ And somehow they were able to dig deep enough to get it done.”
ETSU will pitch Jake Long (2-3) against Brandon Lee (4-3) in the final game of the series today at 1:05 p.m.
“Jake will give us an opportunity to win,” Skole said. “We’ve really backed ourselves into a corner. Pretty much every game in our league now is a must-win for us.”
Notes: Scruggs was 2-for-5 with two runs and two RBIs. He’s hit three home runs in the past two games, giving him a team-leading 15. ... Freeman reached base for the 27th straight game. ... ETSU was without Derek Niesman, who is day to day with an aching back — and one of three Bucs batting over .300. ... Paul Hoilman had been the last Buc to hit three home runs in a game. He did it at UNC Asheville in 2010.