No. 24 Pitt ended a six-game losing streak against rival West Virginia on Saturday, clinching a 5-1 Backyard Brawl victory behind a solid performance from senior pitcher Chris Gomez and an explosive third inning.
The Panthers came into the game with hopes to halt their recent skid, dropping five of their last six matchups. The losses largely came from a lack of offense, as the Panthers failed to push across more than five runs in a game during the recent drought, wasting several solid pitching performances.
West Virginia entered play with an 11-11 overall record coming off of a series against Oklahoma State in which the team dropped two of three and were outscored 31-17.
The Mountaineers came out ready to swing, putting the ball in play early into counts in the first inning. After registering two quick outs, the Mountaineers strung together three straight two-out hits — the third of which lined just out of reach of Pitt sophomore shortstop Brock Franks to drive in a run, giving the Mountaineers an early 1-0 lead.
After a shaky first inning, Gomez buckled down and put together a very solid start, surrendering just six hits and allowing one earned run over seven innings of work. Gomez pitched efficiently, allowing his defense to make the plays behind him without throwing too many pitches.
Pitt head coach Mike Bell said originally the Panthers intended to have a few different pitchers get some work in against the Mountaineers, but once Gomez got in a groove, Bell decided to lengthen him out, and it paid off.
“The idea today was to use a lot of guys,” Bell said. “Chris changed our mind on that because he got in a rhythm today and you saw what I really thought was wanting to get three innings out of him turning into a beautiful seven-inning performance.”
Despite the shaky first inning, Gomez remained confident on the mound and tried not to overthink things.
“After the first inning it was more about just keeping the game close and keeping the team in the ballgame,” Gomez said. “The message [from Bell] was just go out there and keep doing your thing and that’s the message he’s been relaying to me all year. Try to be Chris Gomez — don’t try to be anything bigger than that.”
It seemed as if the struggling offense of the past few weeks continued to linger after a first inning that saw Pitt senior outfielder Nico Popa steal his way into scoring position just to get stranded at third. The offensive struggles persisted into the second inning, in which the Panthers had runners on second and third with no outs and once again failed to drive in any runs.
The game against the Mountaineers seemed to have another uninspiring offensive effort written all over it — until sophomore outfielder Kyle Hess sparked the Panther offense in the third by driving a game-tying home run off of the scoreboard in left field.
Following the Hess home run, the Panther offense exploded for three more runs in the third coming off of three straight hits. Junior outfielder Ron Washington Jr. laced a double into center field, which redshirt senior second baseman David Yanni followed up with a single.
Junior first baseman Bryce Hulett cleared the bags with a two-RBI double of his own, forcing West Virginia to make an early call to the bullpen. The Panthers would tack on one more before the inning ended on an infield single off the bat of first-year catcher Jackson Phinney to give Gomez and the Panthers a 4-1 lead.
After the explosive third inning, the Panther bats once again went relatively quiet until Yanni launched a ball well over the right-field wall in the seventh, giving him his third hit of the game to put the Panthers ahead 5-1. The home run definitely turned heads, but Yanni’s two previous hits that he sent to the opposite field excited Bell the most.
“Seeing David Yanni go backside double was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen,” Bell said. “A lot of people are going to want to talk about the home run that landed out on the street, but the two at-bats where David went the other way ignited this ball club.”
After seven innings of solid work from Gomez, Bell made the call to the bullpen, tasking junior reliever Chase Smith with shutting down the Mountaineers. Smith did just that, allowing just one hit and no runs in his inning of work.
With a few off-days ahead for the Panthers, Bell didn’t take any chances and brought in senior closer Jordan McCrum to finish the game, despite it not being a save situation. McCrum continued his season dominance, making quick work of the Mountaineers to secure a 5-1 Panther win.
According to Bell, the win came as a much-needed confidence boost heading into the late-season push, but he feels the offense still has room left for improvement after wasting several scoring opportunities over the course of the game.
“I think any time you win, it adds confidence to your guys,” Bell said. “We had 11 guys left on base. We still have missed opportunities there as well.”
Yanni echoed Bell’s pleasure with the team’s offensive performance against the Mountaineers and hopes to see this type of offensive showing carry over into the weekend.
“We were in a bit of a rut,” Yanni said. “It’s good to see we had a lot of good at-bats today and we hit the ball hard. We’re just gonna build on that going into the weekend.”
The Panthers turn their focus to this weekend as they welcome the Miami Hurricanes for a three-game set. The series starts on Friday and concludes on Sunday with all games airing on ACCNX.
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