Daily Egyptian

Salukis drop series opener to Jacksonville State

Junior+infielder+Connor+Kopach+%287%29+celebrates+after+hitting+a+two-run+home+run+Friday%2C+March+24%2C+2017%2C+alongside+senior+infielder+Ryan+Sabo+%2823%29+and+senior+infielder+Will+Farmer.+The+Jacksonville+State+Gamecocks+went+on+to+beat+SIU+8-6+during+the+first+of+a+three-game+series+at+Itchy+Jones+Stadium.+%28Bill+Lukitsch+%7C+%40lukitsbill%29
Junior infielder Connor Kopach (7) celebrates after hitting a two-run home run Friday, March 24, 2017, alongside senior infielder Ryan Sabo (23) and senior infielder Will Farmer. The Jacksonville State Gamecocks went on to beat SIU 8-6 during the first of a three-game series at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Junior infielder Connor Kopach (7) celebrates after hitting a two-run home run Friday, March 24, 2017, alongside senior infielder Ryan Sabo (23) and senior infielder Will Farmer. The Jacksonville State Gamecocks went on to beat SIU 8-6 during the first of a three-game series at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Junior infielder Connor Kopach (7) celebrates after hitting a two-run home run Friday, March 24, 2017, alongside senior infielder Ryan Sabo (23) and senior infielder Will Farmer. The Jacksonville State Gamecocks went on to beat SIU 8-6 during the first of a three-game series at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

By Denton "Gio" Giovenco

Even though Southern was the first to score a run, it failed to hold off Jacksonville State, eventually losing 8-6 Friday afternoon.

Saluki senior starting pitcher Chad Whitmer was solid through his first six innings of work, allowing one run on four hits and zero walks while striking out two. Whitmer faced 22 batters over his first six innings Friday — only four batters over the minimum to complete six innings.

Whitmer ran into trouble in the top of the seventh inning, giving up two runs on three hits and one walk before being taken out of the game. All four of the hitters to reach base against Whitmer in the top of the seventh inning came around to score, amounting to five total runs charged to Whitmer on the day.

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“I thought early on [in] the first few four or five innings he was very good,” coach Ken Henderson said. “I don’t think he got tired. Maybe we left him [in the game] too long, I don’t know.”

Freshman pitcher Alex Gutermuth entered the game in relief following Whitmer’s exit. Gutermuth forced an RBI ground-out from the first batter he faced to record the second out of the inning.

Gutermuth failed to record the third out in the seventh, allowing an RBI single, a walk and a three-run home run before he was replaced on the mound.

In total, Jacksonville State scored seven runs in the inning to take the lead 8-1.

This was an atypical relief outing for Gutermuth, who came into Friday’s match-up with the second-best ERA on the team at 0.77 in 11.2 innings across seven relief appearances.

Gamecock junior infielder Taylor Hawthorne attempts to slide back to safety Friday, March 24, 2017, as Saluki senior infielder Ryan Sabo holds the ball at third base. The umpire called Hawthorne out. Jacksonville State went on to beat SIU 8-6 during the first of a three-game series at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

“He just didn’t execute his pitches,” Henderson said. “But he’s capable, he’s got good stuff and he’ll learn from it.”

SIU immediately battled back in the bottom half of the inning after three straight walks to Saluki hitters loaded the bases with no outs.

Senior shortstop Will Farmer pushed senior center fielder Ryan Smith across the plate on a fielder’s choice ground ball for the first run of the inning. Senior third baseman Ryan Sabo scored the second run of the inning on junior left fielder Greg Lambert’s fielder’s choice to right field to make the score 8-3.

Saluki senior infielder Ryan Sabo catches a fly ball Friday, March 24, 2017, during a game against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks. The Gamecocks beat the Salukis 8-6 in nine innings. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Freshman pitcher Justin Yeager covered the final two innings of the game for the Salukis, allowing zero runs to keep Jacksonville State from adding to its lead.

“Yeager executed some pitches,” Henderson said. “Especially in the eighth inning where he got himself out of a jam, so there’s a little bit of bright stuff.”

With Yeager keeping Jacksonville State at bay, the Salukis made it an 8-4 game in the bottom of the eighth inning when junior first baseman Logan Blackfan scored all the way from first base on senior right fielder Jake Hand’s RBI double to left field.

Saluki freshman pitcher Justin Yeager throws from the mound Friday, March 24, 2017, during the first of a three-game series between SIU and Jacksonville State at Itchy Jones Stadium. The Gamecocks beat the Salukis 8-6 in nine innings. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Efforts to rally back from four runs down in the bottom of the ninth for the Salukis received a boost when junior second baseman Connor Kopach launched the first pitch he saw over the left field fence — scoring Sabo who walked to lead off the inning — for a two-run home run.

With the score now 8-6, and no outs yet in the inning, the Salukis sent the heart of their order up to the plate.

Yet the next three Saluki batters would only see six pitches total, with two of the batters swinging at the first pitch they saw, resulting in a fly out, ground out and line out to end the game.

“We got guys that can hit,” Henderson said. “But they’re not hitting in those crucial situations. We gotta make some changes … we can’t continue this path.”

Three hitters served as proof of how good the Salukis can hit by having great days at the plate.

Hand went 2-for-3 with an RBI double and a walk Friday afternoon.

Gamecock infielder and pitcher Dalton Etheridge leads off second base Friday, March 24, 2017, during the first of a three-game series between SIU and Jacksonville State in Itchy Jones Stadium. The Gamecocks beat the Salukis 8-6 in nine innings. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Sabo reached base in every trip to the plate Friday, going 2-for-2 with two walks and three runs scored.

Kopach also reached base in every trip to the plate Friday, going 2-for-2 with three walks, two RBI’s and one run scored — which came on his deep home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Kopach’s home run also ties him for the team-lead with Lambert and Farmer at three home runs each on the season.

“Trying to beat my roommate Will Farmer in home runs,” Kopach said. “We got a joke about it, so I gotta beat him here.”

Kopach’s three walks Friday also put him in the team-lead for walks on the season with 15 total.

By reaching base safely Friday, Kopach has managed to reach base safely in all 22 games so far this season for the Salukis.

Saluki junior infielder Hunter Anderson attempts to slide in for a run Friday, March 24, 2017, as Gamecock sophomore pitcher Derrick Adams holds the ball at home plate. The umpire called Anderson out. Jacksonville State went on to beat SIU 8-6 during the first of a three-game series at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

“I’m calm in the box right now,” Kopach said. “The year before, if [the pitch] was close I was probably swinging at it. Now, I’m much more comfortable in the box, I’m seeing balls well, and just finding ways to get on base for these guys behind me to drive me in and win games.”

Henderson spoke on the team’s drive to win this year, after splitting the first 22 games to begin the season to currently sit with an 11-11 record.

“Our guys care and our guys play hard,” he said. “I think we’re ready to play every day … we’ve got to get ‘blue-collar’ just to be honest with you.”

“We gotta roll up our sleeves and we gotta get after somebody,” Henderson explained. “We gotta get that edge back … we’ve gotta get a little chip on our shoulder and come out with a little bit different attitude.”

The Salukis look to find that edge when they meet Jacksonville State for the second game of the three-game weekend series at 2 p.m. Saturday. Junior ace starting pitcher Michael Baird is scheduled to start for SIU.

Sports writer Denton “Gio” Giovenco can be reached at dgiovenco@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @DentonGiovenco.

To stay up to date with all your SIU sports news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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