After Eric Ruth walked the first two East Tennessee State batters in the top of the ninth inning Wednesday night, Winthrop baseball coach Tom Riginos strode purposefully out to the mound to settle down his senior closer. A brief conference did the trick.
“I told him to take a deep breath, relax, and refocus,” said Riginos. “He’s such a bulldog, he works so quickly and that’s what he was doing. We just had to slow him down, get back to his routine and he did what he did.”
Ruth got the next two Bucs out, then got ETSU power hitter Clinton Freeman to line out to rightfield, nailing shut a 3-2 Winthrop win, only the Eagles’ third in their past 12 ballgames.
“I could feel myself rushing,” Ruth said afterward, while teammates raked and treated the diamond. “I just approached him (Freeman) as any other hitter. I know he has some big numbers and he’s a powerful kid. I just tried to attack the zone... let him make contact and see how far he could hit it.”
After the Eagles eked out a decisive run in the bottom of the seventh, they turned to Ruth ahead of the ninth. After surrendering a leadoff walk to pinch hitter Zach Thompson, the senior also gave a free pass to ETSU’s second pinch hitter of the inning, Jordan Sanford. Following the short chat with Riginos and the rest of the infield, Ruth went to work. He duped Jeremy Taylor into a ground-out, struck out Dylan Tritsch and then got Freeman, whose seven home runs this season is more than twice Winthrop’s team total, to line out for his third save, and a big win for the floundering Eagles.
The Eagles moved to 6-14 on the season, and 6-10 in games decided by three runs or less.
“One-run, two-run ballgames, it comes down to mental toughness,” said Riginos. “Especially with Ruthy on the mound. When you have four outs to go with Ruthy coming in, you feel good.”
With eight regular contributors out injured Wednesday night, Winthrop’s coach was thrilled to beat ETSU (12-6) for the second time in seven days. The Eagles topped the Bucs 2-1 in Johnson City, Tenn., on March 12 and repeated the feat at Winthrop Ballpark with three freshmen and three sophomores playing.
“Our pitching is keeping us in ballgames right now,” said Riginos about his team, which came into the game with a Big South-worst .228 team batting average. “When we get everything going at once, you’re gonna see how this thing gets clicking.”
It was a well-timed victory with Presbyterian coming to Rock Hill Friday for the Eagles’ opening series in Big South Conference play. Confidence was low after an offensively weak series with Rhode Island last weekend – Winthrop scored a combined three runs and the Rams swept the series. The Eagles only surrendered 10 runs, which could have been enough for a win or two, but had little or no run support.
That’s been the case for much of the season, but Ruth and the other Eagle pitchers aren’t giving up on their offensive teammates.
“We trust our team,” he said. “We have a lot of talented young guys out there.”
Wednesday night’s game cruised along through the first four innings. Winthrop starting pitcher Joey Strain was sharp in that span, allowing 15 Buc batters a single hit and no runs. ETSU’s Josh Jacques started against the Eagles for the second time in a week, and was also tidy through the first four frames.
But the lefty lost his grip on the game in the fifth when Winthrop took a 2-0 lead. Shortstop Kyle Edwards led off with a walk and Winthrop catcher Austen Barber executed a pinpoint sacrifice bunt to move Edwards over. Former Northwestern Trojan Michael Patrick, who was 2-for-3, bashed a double to score Edwards and break the deadlock with his second career RBI. Luke Maldonado then traded places with the freshman Patrick, slapping a two-bagger into the gap between center and left to make it 2-0.
Winthrop reliever Mitchell Knox ran into a bit of trouble in the top of the sixth, and ETSU took advantage to tie the game 2-2. Andrew Green singled and Derek Neisman walked to put runners on first and second, causing Riginos to look to the bullpen and right-hander Steven Howell. After walking Alex Reynolds to load the bases, a pair of wild pitches allowed the Bucs to score twice and even the score.
The Eagles held their nerve, though, as their pitching again saw them through to a win. ETSU had scored 41 runs in the past four games, but was limited to five hits , a confidence-boosting effort for the embattled Eagles. Josh Strong picked up the win on the mound for Winthrop after setting up for Ruth.
Ruth showed the guts that made him a natural candidate for the closer role. He’s only allowed one run in just over 12 innings of work this season, though the Eagles haven’t needed a closer in many of their games.
“We haven’t really gotten to me as frequently as we like,” Ruth said. “This weekend is big for us; hopefully I can get out there some more.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T