HOUSTON—Preseason All-Americans John Stilson and C.J. Cron were the main prospect attractions in the day's second game here at Minute Maid Park. Stilson pitched well for Texas A&M, and Cron hit well for Utah, but both were upstaged by Utes pitchers Rick Anton and Tyler Wagner, who carried Utah to a 2-1 win, its first of the season.
Anton, a senior lefthander, allowed just one run on five hits and a walk while striking out eight over seven strong innings. Wagner, a sophomore righty, followed with two scoreless innings to pick up the save.
The Aggies threatened repeatedly, but Anton and Wagner made big pitches in big spots. Six times A&M put its leadoff man aboard but failed to score. A&M stranded three runners at third base and two more at second. All told, the Aggies were 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-18 with runners on base.
Catcher Kevin Gonzalez doubled to lead off the ninth, then moved to third on a passed ball, putting the tying run 90 feet from the plate with no outs. But Wagner got Brandon Wood and Adam Smith to chase a series of sliders in the dirt for two strikeouts, then got Kenny Jackson to ground out to first to end it. He used his slurvy slider and sinking fastball effectively.
"That's who we want at the end of the game," Utah coach Bill Kinneberg said of Wagner. "He's a converted shortstop—came to us as a shortstop, we thought the arm was too valuable, so we started switching him last spring. Hopefully it bears fruit for us, but he's going to be our guy at the end of the game. He's kind of a no-nonsense guy, doesn't get scared, pretty calm. He made some big pitches with guys at second and third today."
So did Anton, who commanded a nice four-pitch mix: a fastball that was 90-91 in the first, 87-89 thereafter; an 82 mph changeup; a 75-78 curveball; and an 85-86 mph cutter that he said was his go-to pitch today. Texas A&M's righthanded hitters struggled against the cutter down and in.
"That cutter is a new pitch for him, and it has really, really helped him," Kinneberg said. "He's throwing it pretty hard, so hitters have to respect that. He's been able to locate it, which has been good for him. That's about 18 innings in a row now that he's been really good. We expect him to be our guy on Fridays now."
Texas A&M's own guy on Fridays, John Stilson, set a career high with 10 strikeouts over six strong innings, allowing one run on six hits and two walks. His fastball sat at 92-94 and peaked at 95, and he racked up strikeouts with his 81-83 changeup and 78-82 curveball. He showed great stuff, and he competed; in short, he pitched well. But don't tell him that.
"No, I don't think I pitched well at all," Stilson said. "I mean, we lost. There's nothing to be said about it. I didn't get the job done, what I needed to get done. I didn't start us off well. I just didn't set the tone."
Cron got the better of Stilson in all three of their matchups. He ripped an RBI single to left-center on a 92 mph fastball in the first inning, then hit another rocket at the third baseman on a changeup for an infield single in the third.
"Basically we knew he pounded the zone," Cron said of Stilson. "Last year he didn't walk many guys, so we knew he'd get ahead early. I looked foolish on a couple of curveballs, but I made some adjustments and got a good piece of it."
Stilson plunked Cron on the first pitch in his next at-bat, and the A&M bullpen intentionally walked him in his final two at-bats. Cleanup hitter Shaun Cooper followed the seventh-inning intentional walk with an RBI single to center field, breaking a 1-1 tie. That proved the game-winner.
"We got a clutch hit from Cooper, which he's going to have to do because they're going to walk C.J. a lot this year," Kinneberg said. "So that's got to happen a bunch."
Cron, a third-team preseason All-American as a catcher, was playing first base Friday, and he'll continue to play there while nursing a shoulder injury. He called it "a little bit of a labrum issue," and said if the shoulder can get a little better and he can manage the pain, maybe he'll have a chance to get behind the plate again at some point this season. "We'll see," he said.
Cron is a gifted hitter, with power and a mature approach. Many of the scouts on hand were eager to see how he'd fare against the power-armed Stilson.
"I think he passed the test," Kinneberg said. "Stilson's really good, and C.J. had some great at-bats against him. C.J. is, for me, the best hitter that I've been around, and I've been around some good ones. He's got great hands, great power, and just knows how to hit."
As for the Aggies' offense, which has managed just two runs combined on the last two Friday nights, there is work to be done. The ever-fierce Stilson expressed optimism.
"Our hitting's going to come around, and hopefully it will start tomorrow against Rice," he said. "We're going to beat Rice, then we're going to beat Houston on Sunday."
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