Catcher Brandon Stephens dove to his knees in the fifth inning, trying to get a hold of the ball hit weakly in front of home plate so he could throw out Kennesaw State’s center fielder as he dashed down the first base line.
But he came up short.
And so it went for the Georgia baseball team on Tuesday at Foley Field, as the Bulldogs (1-3) dropped their third game of the season to the Owls (3-1) 10-7 in a game full of moments where they were shy of breaking it open.
“We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” Stephens said. “We just had a hard time in the zone. No big deal. It’s not like we just gave up or just gave in.”
Reliever Pete Nagel, back this season after Tommy John surgery sidelined him in 2013, took the ball in the ninth with one out, one on base and the Bulldogs down by one run. To get through the inning unscathed, he just had to retire two batters who’d been on base only twice before.
He couldn’t. Instead, he offered up a single and a couple of bases-loaded walks until he was replaced. He was charged with three earned runs on three walks and one hit.
“He’s going to get that ball again,” coach Scott Stricklin said. “He just couldn’t find the strike zone. It’s unfortunate because no one deserves success more than Pete Nagel.”
But that didn’t stop the Bulldogs from trying to win it for Nagel.
Georgia mounted a comeback in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases after a walk to third baseman Jess Posey, who accounted for one of the two Georgia errors on the night. Nichols was hit by a pitch, forcing in a run, and a walk to the next batter put the game in better reach, the score now 10-7. But the next two batters struck out looking, stranding three and giving the Bulldogs their third loss of the season.
“All you can ask for is bring the tying or winning run to the plate,” Stricklin said. “We certainly wish we weren’t in that spot. We wish we could’ve shut things down in the ninth and given ourselves a better chance of winning. But our kids kept playing until the last out. I’m proud of that.”
Lost in the breakdown of the bullpen was the performance from Georgia starter Robert Tyler.
From the beginning, it looked like the freshman from Cordele would make a difference for a Bulldog team that couldn’t find its footing on the mound this past weekend against Georgia Southern, a series in which the Bulldogs were outscored 30-18. He cruised through the first four innings, entering the fifth with a pitch count around 50. There was nary a run to his name, the one on the Owls’ half of the scoreboard a result of an error by third baseman Posey.
“He was locked in from the bullpen to warm-ups to however many innings he threw,” Stephens said. “One time I had to go out there and get on him a little bit but he did an awesome job responding to me and responding to a little bit of adversity.”
Then shortstop Nelson Ward botched a play destined for an easy second out of the fifth. Tyler’s last pitch came one batter later as he gave up a single to close his night after 4.1 innings and three strikeouts. Stricklin replaced his starter with redshirt sophomore David Sosebee, who recorded five strikeouts in 3.1 innings of relief for Georgia against the Eagles this weekend.
But instead of shutting down the offense as he did in the first series, he allowed a three-run homer to Chris McGowan and gave the Owls a 5-3 lead.
“It’s disappointing that we dug that hole for ourselves but you got to learn from it and to move on,” Stricklin said. “That’s how you become a better team.”
The Bulldogs rallied in the bottom of the fifth with two straight hits, one an RBI single by designated hitter Zack Bowers, who until that point had been 0-for-9 in the season.
“It felt good (to get my first hit),” Bowers said. “I was out for about a week or so with my back. So getting back in the groove and seeing pitches is what helped me.”
Georgia scored the tying run on a Heath Holder groundball to short but did no more damage against Owls’ reliever Cole McArthur. McArthur faced 17 Georgia batters in 3.2 innings, gave up four hits and two walks on one strikeout.
Kennesaw didn’t keep a lead for longer than half an inning until a fielder’s choice in the eighth. A bloop single fell close to the right field line between Georgia’s first baseman Stephen Nichols and outfielder Conor Welton, which loaded the bases for the Eagles’ Kal Simmons. He grounded a ball to first and reached base when Nichols forced the out at second. The Owl at third scored, the game now 6-5 in Kennesaw State’s favor, and Georgia was never able to catch up.
“We’ve got some good arms, some young guys but they’re very talented,” Bowers said. “I’ve got no worries for them in the future.”