SUGAR LAND – Three-seed Sam Houston State unloaded early and often, scoring six runs in the first inning to set the tone in a 13-1, seven-inning Southland Conference Tournament-opening win against six-seed Stephen F. Austin at Constellation Field.
The Bearkats crushed two first inning homers, including a three-run shot from Robie Rojas, who matched a program-best for RBIs in a league tournament game with five. Sam Houston's first nine runs all came with two outs as the Kats produced their most at the event since striking for 15 on May 24, 2008.
The win was the fifth-straight in the conference tournament opener for the Bearkats (37-20), who will go on to face the winner of Southeastern Louisiana and New Orleans on Thursday at 4 p.m.
On the mound, the run support was more than enough for Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year Heath Donica (9-1). The right-hander moved to 5-0 in two seasons against the Lumberjacks, limiting SFA (29-27) to three hits and one run (none earned) in a complete-game effort while fanning nine and walking five.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Sam Houston sent all nine hitters to the plate and produced in a big way with two down. Rojas tagged a three-run home run over the left field wall to start the scoring. The homer was his fifth this season and began the two-out production.
Blake Chisolm and Hunter Hearn laced back-to-back doubles into right center for the 4-0 advantage before Jaxxon Grisham unloaded on his first home run since April 27 a season ago, belting a two-run shot over the wall in right center for the six-run lead.
For a second consecutive inning, Sam Houston put runners on first and second, courtesy of a Bryce Johnson single and Clayton Harp walk. The Bearkats went station-to-station courtesy of three-straight, run-scoring singles from Rojas, Chisolm and Hearn, building a 9-0 lead.
After chasing two SFA pitchers in as many innings, the Bearkats did not wait long to greet new reliever Austin Hearn. Sam Houston put the first two aboard on a walk and hit by pitch before Riley McKnight placed a bunt single to third, scoring one as the throw to first sailed wide.
With two in scoring position, Johnson reached on an infield single and Andrew Fregia sent an RBI groundout to the same spot putting Sam Houston ahead 12-0. Rojas continued his career day, sending a sharp single to third for his career-high fifth RBI.
PUTTING THE ‘K' IN BEARKATS
With nine strikeouts, Heath Donica moved up to into the top-10 Sam Houston career rankings at seventh with 196. The right-hander's inning-ending strikeout in the sixth was the 100th this season, the most for a Bearkat pitcher in Division I lore and third-most in team lore.
Donica's nine strikeouts also moved the season-total for Sam Houston pitching to 445. The mark ranks second in team lore, trailing only the 2009 team which finished with 470.
OTHER NOTES ON THE VICTORY
All nine Sam Houston positional starters recorded either a hit, run scored or RBI. Bryce Johnson set a season-high with four hits while logging his team-leading 27th multi-hit performance.
Robie Rojas's five-RBI game marked only the second time the feat had been accomplished by a Bearkat at the Southland Conference Tournament and was the first since Bobby Verbick on May 22, 2008 against A&M-Corpus Christi.
The victory was the eighth in the last 11 games at the Southland Conference Tournament for Sam Houston, dating to a 5-1 conference tournament-opening victory against McNeese in 2015. The 12-run vwin against Stephen F. Austin was the most lopsided for the Kats in the rivalry since blanking the Lumberjacks, 12-0 in 1990.
Head coach Matt Deggs on the outing from Heath Donica…
“It all starts with the guy on the bump. Every time Heater takes the bump, he's going to give us a great outing and he did that again today. That's a tough team over there. That's a tough team to strikeout and he blew through their lineup pretty good. He didn't have his best command and had to grind for us but we were fortunate to get out there and give him a big lead early.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on the success at Constellation Field…
“Our kids love this ballpark. They are very comfortable here. They understand that every game is going to be a dogfight. There are some great teams in this league. That first one is a very important game and game number two is the most important.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on the six-run first inning…
“Hats off to SFA. They've scrapped us really well. It was good to come out and give us a little breathing room early. To see us continue to add, that's what I've seen over the last week and a half or so. The hitters are showing some nastiness in the box. It's not just one guy. It's all of them.”
Robie Rojas on his performance and the victory…
“All day, I saw the ball pretty well. It's really big for us to do that (six-run first) especially with Heater on the hill. With a six-run lead, he can relax and do his thing. Every time you play SFA, it's always a rival … even for the fans, they want us to win big.”
Heath Donica on his performance against SFA…
“It makes it a lot easier to pitch when my team gives me a big lead early in the game like that. I was just trying to fill up the zone after that. Honestly, I didn't have my best stuff going today but I made some pitches when I needed to. I thought we played good defense all day too. It was a pretty fun day.”