CONWAY, S.C.—Friday's pitching showdown between San Diego junior righthander Kyle Blair and Coastal Carolina junior lefthander Cody Wheeler largely lived up to its billing, but San Diego's patchwork defense unraveled in the fifth inning, and the opportunistic Chanticleers took advantage. Coastal scored seven runs in that frame—six of then unearned—and cruised to a 10-2 victory in the opener of a three-game series at Watson Stadium.
With starting shortstop Zach Walters sidelined with a dislocated thumb, the Toreros started usual second baseman Chris Engell at short, and he committed two costly errors in the fateful fifth. To make matters worse for Engell, he left the game later in the frame after a bad-hop grounder hit him in the throat, causing him to fall backward and hit his head on the ground. Engell walked off the field, but San Diego coach Rich Hill said he will have a CT scan to make sure he's OK.
Blair allowed a solo homer to speed merchant Rico Noel to lead off the game, then settled down, holding the Chanticleers hitless until Tommy La Stella's two-out double in the fourth. Blair's stuff was impressive: He located his 90-92 mph fastball well to both sides of the plate and effectively mixed in his 73-75 overhand curveball, his 81-83 changeup and his devastating 76-78 slider. He used the slider as a putaway pitch to rack up all nine of his strikeouts over 5 1/3 innings, while allowing six hits and walking three.
"He's got a slider that's very deceptive, very hard to recognize," Hill said. "He's got a good overhand curveball, a 12-to-6 deal, and his fastball command has really improved. That, along with his changeup, is going to take him to the next level, and I thought he did pretty well with both of those pitches tonight."
"For four innings, he was as good as we've seen," Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. "He's got dynamic stuff. He pitched backwards—I mean, guys were getting 3-2 breaking balls and changeups for strikes. I tip my hat to him—we were very fortunate. We got a couple of breaks in that one inning, they didn't make every play in the infield, and it helped us. We were able to string a real good inning together."
Coastal is very good at stringing big innings together. On Friday, the patient, experienced Chanticleers simply bided their time and then exploded when San Diego opened the door. Back-to-back RBI doubles by the last two hitters in the Coastal lineup, Taylor Motter and Luke Schlecte, kickstarted the rally, and Jose Iglesias' two-run single to center broke open the game three batters later.
Coastal wasn't at full strength in its infield either—third baseman Scott Woodward was sick, so usual second baseman Steve Davis played third base for the first time in his collegiate career, and usual DH La Stella filled in at second. But the Chanticleers were very solid defensively, and Motter was characteristically outstanding at shortstop.
That made Wheeler's job easier. The lefty did not have his best velocity, working at 88-91 early but dipping to 84-90 as the game progressed, but his 81-82 changeup was very effective, as was his three-quarters breaking ball in the 77-80 range. Wheeler did not have fine control, either—he issued six walks and allowed five hits over six-plus innings—but he always seemed in control of the game, and he made big pitches when he needed to.
"That's the best, most aggressive game he's pitched since UC Irvine (on Feb. 27)," Gilmore said. "For six innings he was very good—great arm speed, he located and changed speeds. He looked like he did against Irvine, and it's good to see. We need him to really step up and be good."
He was good Friday, but more importantly the Chanticleers were more opportunistic and fundamentally sound than the Toreros.
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