By Brandon Scalea
After a shaky start to 2016, the defending regular-season MAAC baseball champions are back on the right track.
Heading into the three-game series with a solid Sacred Heart team, a team that has appeared in an NCAA Regional in three of the last five years, Rider had been improving. In the series, the Broncs kept their momentum going and took two out of three against the Pioneers. They have now won seven of their last nine games.
Head Coach Barry Davis was pleased with the way his team performed overall.
“Going into a non-conference series like this, there’s a little less pressure on us because the games don’t affect your conference standings,” he said. “But I think we enjoyed the fact that we got to play at home, and I think we’re coming around and hitting the ball better.”
Game one of the series on April 8 saw Rider and Sacred Heart meet for the first time on a baseball field. Sophomore pitcher Nick Margevicius was virtually untouchable on the mound. He went seven strong innings, striking out 11 batters and allowing only one run on four hits. The win was his second of the season in seven starts.
In the final two innings, junior pitcher Josh Sharik appeared in relief and picked up his first save of the season, the third of his career.
On the offensive side, the Broncs took advantage of their strong pitching and used small ball to pull away. Junior third baseman Mike Volaski, a first-year transfer from Ventura Community College in California, broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth inning with an RBI single. He picked up another RBI single in the bottom of the sixth, his 12th hit in seven games, to put Rider up 2-1. Both hits came with two outs.
The Broncs added two more runs that inning, thanks to a single by sophomore infielder Christian Estevez and an RBI double from senior center fielder James Locklear. Estevez and junior first baseman Tyler Kaiser combined for four of Rider’s 10 hits.
Davis feels that the pitching the Broncs faced in their early non-conference road trip really prepared them well.
“I wouldn’t say the teams are better in the south, but there’s certainly a lot more depth there in terms of pitching,” he said. “Even when we struggled early on, there were some fleeting moments when we hit the ball really well. But now, everyone is starting to get a little better and we’re starting to put those big hits together.”
The second and third games of the series were played in a doubleheader at a brisk and windy Sonny Pittaro Field on April 10. Rider took the first game in come-from-behind fashion, 4-2, to claim the series. In the rubber match, the Broncs chose to shift their lineup around a bit, and it cost them. The Pioneers cruised to a 7-4 win.
In the win, junior pitcher Vincenzo Aiello went the distance, tossing nine innings and allowing one earned run on six hits. He notched his second victory of the year.
Rider had to battle back, though. Struggling to put together offense in the early going, the Broncs trailed 1-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh. With the bases loaded and two outs, freshman first baseman Riley Mihalik picked up possibly the biggest hit of his college career thus far. He launched a double in the gap, scoring all three base runners to give the Broncs a lead they would not relinquish.
He would not have to wait too long to greet his teammates in the dugout — the next batter, Volaski, drove him in with an RBI double of his own.
In the final game of the series, Rider struggled defensively. Sophomore shortstop Jake Bender made a pair of key errors with two outs that kept Sacred Heart rallies alive. In total, the Broncs had four errors.
Junior pitcher C.J. Hirschy got the start for Rider, and it was a shaky one. He went six innings, allowing nine hits and four earned runs. Sacred Heart totaled 14 hits in the game.
The Broncs then went on the road to take on Lehigh on April 12. It was a rematch from their previous encounter on April 5, when the Broncs defeated the Mountain Hawks at Sonny Pittaro Field to advance to the Liberty Bell Classic Championship.
After the Broncs scored a run in the second inning, Lehigh answered back with three runs, thanks to hits by Thomas Schumaker, Chris Butera and Jacen Nalesnik that scored a run each.
Kaiser responded with a two-run homer in the top of the third inning to tie the game up.
What ensued was a back and forth battle between the two teams, with each inning featuring a run, except for the fourth and seventh inning.
Tied 8-8 in the top of the ninth inning, Rider freshman Riley Mihalik singled to give the Broncs a 9-8 in what would have been the game-winning hit.
Lehigh Mike Garzillo homered in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game up once more and gave the Mountain Hawks a chance to win in the bottom of the 10th, which they did.
Garzillo won the game in the bottom of the 10th with a walk-off single.
Freshman Brett Kosciolek struggled against Lehigh, allowing 10 hits and six earned runs and striking out just three.
Rider will take on Canisius in a home conference series on April 16 and 17.