The Valdosta Daily Times
First Matthew Fears delivered a clutch defensive play to keep Delta State at bay.
Then the Valdosta State second baseman delivered not one, but two crucial hits to lift the No. 9 Blazers to a 4-3 win in Saturday’s second game at Billy Grant Field. The Statesmen, ranked No. 25, won the opener 8-3.
“I thought there were two keys in that game,” VSU coach Greg Guilliams said as his Blazers moved to 11-3 and 4-3 in the Gulf South Conference. “One was the play he made on the ball up the middle to get the force out at second. If he didn’t do that they would have gotten two more runs and it would have made it hard for us to come back.
“And then he got the big hit obviously. Matthew was involved with two of the biggest plays of the game.”
Delta State is now 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the conference ahead of today’s 1 p.m. series finale.
Fears’ defensive play stemmed the Delta State tide in the second inning where the Statesmen had already scored once to tie the game and were poised to once again seize control. But with the bases loaded and two outs, Fears tracked down a Jordan Chovanec grounder up the middle to get a force out at second base to end the threat. Delta State took advantage of two walks, a VSU error and Jonathan Andrews getting hit by a Josh Mann pitch with the bases loaded to tie the game, all coming with two outs.
“Our pitchers do a good job of throwing strikes and we tell them all the time to throw strikes and let us play defense for you,” Fears said. “J-Man did that and I’m glad I was able to make a play for him.”
After the Statesmen took the lead two innings later when Will Robertson hit a sacrifice fly to right field for the first out to plate Brent Langston, Fears’ bat came through in the fifth. With Hunter Thompson, who doubled to open the inning, at third with one out, Fears singled off Chovanec’s glove at short and into left field to tie the game. Two batters later, Fears scored to put VSU back on top when Bryant Hayman singled through the left side. But Fears’ run didn’t come easy. Rather, the 6-foot, 180-pound senior had to go through Delta State’s 5-9, 190-pound catcher Ben Pickard to do it.
“That was a big boy right there,” Fears said. “That was a good play at the plate. He went to the inside right as I went to the inside, it was unintentional.”
After Delta tied the game again in the top of the sixth when Landon Thibodeaux’s sac fly plated Hunter Twitty, Fears came through once again. Kevin Cruz opened up the bottom half of the inning with a single and after advancing to second on a sacrifice bunt, he moved to third when Thompson singled off DSU second baseman Kasy Hinton’s glove. An out later, Fears drove a 1-1 pitch from Taylor Stark back up the middle for the go-ahead run.
“That’s one of the reasons we were trying to safety squeeze,” Guilliams said about the second out, which came when Will Wilson struck out after first fouling a bunt attempt. “If we get the run in, fine. If not, we still have Fears coming to the plate. There’s a reason why he’s our leadoff hitter. We want to get him up there as many times as we can, and that time, it worked out.”
Added Fears: “I think that’s what everybody likes, that’s why we play to compete. Coach Todd (Guilliams) talked this week about having a plan at the plate, and I think that’s why I had success today.
“Delta State has good pitchers, and I saw the guy warming up. I knew he had a pretty good fastball and a good slider, so I was sitting on slider.”
Ethan Bornstein then relieved Mann to close out the Statesmen, but not first after some trouble. Retiring the first two DSU hitters, Bornstein then struck Dex Herrington out, except the ball in the dirt scooted far enough away from Hayman that Herrington reached. A walk and another wild pitch later, DSU had runners at second and third before Bornstein struck out Stark to end it.
“We didn’t get the out on a strike three and that gave them another chance,” Guilliams said. “And when you’re playing a good team and you give them another chance, that’s the scary part.
“Ethan made the pitch when he needed to.”
That came after Delta State starter Michael Manley kept the Blazers off-balance in Game 1. While VSU recorded nine hits off the Statesmen ace, he routinely avoided damage as the Blazers couldn’t deliver the big hit.
“He was undefeated last year and he’s undefeated this year,” Guilliams said. “We would have had to play a lot better than we played to have beaten him.
“When Manley got in trouble, he was going to his breaking ball and our hitters didn’t do a good job of adjusting to it.”
VSU got its runs off Manley in the third when Fears singled and scored on a Hayman sac fly just before Mike Reed was thrown out at second trying to advance on the play, which ended the inning. Clint Carr doubled with two outs in the fifth and then scored ona Fears single, and Hayman added a leadoff home run in the sixth.
VSU starter Dom DeMasi lasted 6 1-3 innings, allowing 10 hits and six runs. The Statesmen took the lead on a two-run home fun from Thibodeaux in the third and DSU tacked on three more in the fifth with Carlos Leal’s two-run single being the big blow.