VALDOSTA -- Welcome to mid-week collegiate baseball.
In the South, weekends are for the conference games with your front-line pitchers taking the mound. Those games you must win to have any title hopes.
In the middle of the week, coaches can use their normal lineups with a few different names in that last lineup spot: pitcher.
Valdosta State and North Florida approached their Wednesday night game at Billy Grant Field in the same way. And at the end of North Florida's 9-4 win, it wasn't some seldom-used pitcher which made the difference. It was the everyday starters.
After an early 4-0 deficit, VSU made a game of it with a three-run fifth. But two VSU errors (when first baseman Scott Simpson had an infield throw deflect off his glove, then catcher Jake Cosper's bad throw to third base on a steal attempt) led to a run in the seventh, then a lost fly ball plated the final two runs in the eighth.
VSU (32-14) began Senior Weekend early, giving senior converted outfielder Jay Neundorfer (7 2/3 innings this season) his second career start, then coming with senior Blake Dykes (5 2/3 innings this season) in relief. They combined to give up four hits and four walks in three innings, as the Ospreys (30-12) took a 4-0 lead.
"I could have gone with some other pitchers, but we've had guys sitting on the bench all year long," said VSU head coach Tommy Thomas. "For some of them, this is their last hurrah."
UNF freshman Ryan Amason (4 2/3 innings this season) got his first career start, and shut out VSU for four innings. The Blazers made their usual run in the fifth, closing the game to 4-3.
But the Blazers stranded the tying run at second in the sixth, and the tying runs at third and second in the seventh. Meanwhile, UNF used to errors to score a run in the seventh and got back-to-back two-out, two-RBI hits -- the second when centerfielder Scott Fletcher lost Joseph Russell's fly ball in the twilight.
Freshman Mason Smith (eight innings this season) gave the Blazers three shutout innings in the middle of the game, and almost got out of the bases-loaded situation in the eight before jeff Millsaps' two-RBI single.
"Mason did a wonderful job. He didn't get what he deserved," said Thomas. "All of a sudden we're losing balls on our own field -- sun, twilight, I don't know what. That cost us four or five runs."
North Florida turned to freshman Jared incinelli to follow Amason in the seventh, and got the last two outs. Incinelli, the younger brother of one of the UNF's all-time best pitchers (Matt), was pitching in his second game.
He allowed Fletcher's RBI single in the eighth before the Ospreys went to two more experienced pitchers to finish the game.
"We've been trying to get Amason in some game situations," said UNF coach Dusty Rhodes. "We told some guys we wanted to try and piece this game together. I wanted Amason to give us as many innings as he could. He deserved the opportunity and he did a great job."
Sammy Watson was 2-for-5 with a two-RBI double in the fifth. Fletcher, Simpson and David Lewis also had two hits.
Next up for VSU is a three-game series with Gulf South East foe Lincoln Memorial. The Blazers are 9-6 and in fourth place in the GSC East, two games back of leader Alabama-Huntsville and one game back of West Florida and West Georgia with six games left.
It's the final three home games of the year, and Thomas is three wins away from becoming Division II's winningest coach.
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