To begin its final home series of the season, the Elon University baseball team came out swinging, and members of the team broke a few personal records while doing so.
Five RBIs from junior center fielder Justin Cassella, which tied his career high, powered the Phoenix offensively. On the other side of the game, sophomore Shea Sprague threw a career-high 112 pitches. The two combined efforts led the Phoenix to an 11-2 victory over the North Carolina A&T Aggies.
After a difficult loss Tuesday against High Point, head coach Mike Kennedy said he was glad the Phoenix was able to bounce back today, especially with the end of the season rounding the corner.
“It was a much-needed win,” Kennedy said. “We’re coming down to the wire and there's a lot to play for and a lot going on around the league. Everybody's fighting for some of the same type of stuff, so it was good to get out and get a lead early and keep that going.”
The initial Phoenix lead came in the bottom of the second inning and was never relinquished throughout the night. After back-to-back singles from redshirt junior second baseman Tanner Holliman and junior left fielder Connor Offshack, Holliman advanced to third in an extremely close play.
But Holliman only continued to cause chaos on the basepaths in that same frame. Redshirt junior third baseman Connor Coolahan hit a grounder to third base, and Holliman charged forward. Getting caught in a jam with the Aggies catcher, Holliman evaded the tag and ran home, scoring the first run of the game.
“Base running and the ability to put pressure on people allows you to score more and create more opportunities for your teammates,” Kennedy said. “Being able to do that just gives us another element to play and win.”
Offshack then scored on a sacrifice fly by sophomore right fielder Charlie Granatell, putting the score at 2-0.
Sprague went three up, three down until the top of the third, in which he struck out two but relinquished a run off an RBI single.
Not long after, the Phoenix would give Sprague the room to cruise throughout the rest of the night. After a push bunt to third base, the first of two for Cassella, Holliman took the next pitch swinging and homered over the left field fence.
An inning later, Cassella did the same, hitting another two-run shot and bringing the score to 6-1 in favor of the Phoenix.
“He just showed you what he's capable of doing,” Kennedy said. “He played a little smarter today and just kind of swing, swing, swing and dropped a couple bunts, stole the base and a big hit there late to break it open.”
Right after, Holliman hit a single and stole second. With this steal, he became the first Phoenix player since 2009 to have double digit stolen bases and home runs – but his teammate is not too far behind him, as Cassella currently has nine steals and 13 home runs to his name.
The home runs off the bats of Cassella and Holliman have been the story for the Phoenix all season, as both have gone back and forth leading the team. Currently, Cassella leads Holliman by one home run this season, as Holliman has 12. Kennedy said he’s proud of both of their efforts so far and that they have both been large success factors.
“I hope they keep doing it, I hope that becomes a little bit of a battle and they get some good pitches to hit, and they don't miss them,” Kennedy said. “Both of those guys are having a really good year for us and they're having some big swings and those swings have been really important for where we're at right now.”
The Phoenix tacked on one more in the bottom of the fifth courtesy of freshman designated hitter Ryan Sprock’s sacrifice fly. All the while, Sprague continued to deal.
Cassella continued to get on base in the bottom of the sixth as he hit his second bunt of the night.
“I always look down to see where that third baseman is,” Cassella said. “If he's far back enough, I'll definitely lay one down but I just knew I had the opportunity to get one down that whole game so I got down twice.”
Cassella immediately set his sights on second and stole it during Holliman’s at-bat. He echoed Kennedy and said that stealing is an important part of his and the team’s game.
“Base running puts a lot of pressure on the defense and that's just what we're trying to do,” Cassella said. “Being able to take those bags is huge for us with putting pressure on that pitcher and their defense.”
Sprague worked into a bit of trouble in the top of the seventh and called it a night after an RBI double on his 112th pitch, boasting a career high pitching night for him. He earned his sixth win with six strikeouts to back him up.
“I thought he was great early in each inning and really got some quick outs and did some good stuff,” Kennedy said. “I thought he ran into a little bit of trouble, probably three or four times when he got two outs. It's almost like he kind of let up a little bit and didn't push the gas down. But he pitched great and competes like he always does. Every time he goes out there, he goes deep in the game. He gives us a chance to win.”
Junior Ben Simon earned the final out of the half inning, but Cassella was not done. After an RBI single off of Granatell, an error and a walk would load the bases, and Cassella took advantage. He smoked a triple into the corner of right field, clearing the bases and adding three more RBIs to his name, with the Phoenix leading 11-2.
“Sometimes I speed up on two strikes but staying slow and just hitting the other way, it got by that right fielder and I just ran like hell,” Cassella said.
Simon took the next two outs and graduate student Joe Sprake earned the final four, sealing the 11-2 victory for the Phoenix.
The Phoenix will be back at Latham Park May 14 at 4 p.m. for the second game of the series against the Aggies.
“It’s a brand new day, the game starts at 0-0,” Cassella said. “You’ve got to just get after it like we have been and just put the ball in play and good things happen.”