HUNTSVILLE – The Sam Houston State Bearkats were a strike away from victory on Opening Day, but that hope ended in an instant as Kent State’s Josh Hollander smashed a game-winning grand slam with two outs in the top of the ninth to give the Golden Flashes a 7-4 win at Don Sanders Stadium.
Sam Houston (0-1) had taken a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh on a 2-run homer by Hunter Hearn and after two scoreless innings of relief from Riley Gossett, the Kats looked to be in business as they handed the ball off to sophomore stopper Nick Mikolajchak.
But the only Bearkat error of the night and a pair of infield hits extended the inning, and after Kent State (1-0) got one back on an RBI single, Hollander fouled off three straight 3-2 pitches before launching the eventual game-winning shot.
Mikolajchak was saddled with the loss, despite all five of his runs in the ninth being unearned. KSU reliever Chris Martin was the winning pitcher with a pair of punchouts in the eighth inning, while Robert Zeigler came in to toss a perfect ninth for his first save of the year.
Seth Ballew was strong in his first start of the year, striking out seven in 6.0 innings of work before handing the ball to Gossett who was in line for the win with 2.0 shutout frames that included four strikeouts of his own. Hearn, Andrew Fregia and Jaxxon Grisham would provide much of the offense for Sam Houston with two hits apiece.
Kent State would finish with 14 hits for the game and left 13 runners on base, while the Kats finished with eight base hits and stranded nine.
The Kats and Golden Flashes will continue their three-game series on Saturday afternoon with first pitch set for 3 p.m. Hayden Wesneski will get the ball for the Bearkats while right-hander Joey Murray will get the start for Kent State.
Ballew found himself in some early hot water after issuing consecutive free passes to open the game. But the redshirt junior bore down from there, punching out Reilly Hawkins for the first out before Kian O’Brien flew out to deep left-center field. He then showed Pete Schuler a steady dose of off-speed pitches, getting the Kent State first baseman swinging to leave runners stranded at second and third.
The Kats were able to take advantage of an early baserunner in the home half of the second with Chase Cryer coaxing a four-pitch walk from Kraus to open the frame, and quickly advancing into scoring position by swiping second base one pitch later. Ben Haefner would move him up to third with a grounder to the right side and two batters later Jaxxon Grisham would bring home the first run of the season for the Kats, plating Cryer with a clean single into right field.
But Kent State answered an inning later, putting two on the board to take a 2-1 lead for Kraus. They did all their work with two outs as Hawkins doubled into the left-center field gap to get it started. He would score on a single by O’Brien and Schuler would make up for his first-inning strikeout by shooting a double to the wall in left-center field that gave the Golden Flashes the lead.
The Kats could not convert on a base runner in the third and left the tying run on second against Kraus in fourth. But consecutive singles by Fregia and Chisolm in the fifth, chasing Kraus from the game. A misplay at third base gave the Kats a golden chance to do damage, but a strikeout by reliever Austin Havekost of Haefner was followed by a pop out by Cannon that put Sam Houston the brink of coming up empty. However, with Grisham at the plate and an 0-2 count, Havekost was called for a balk that sent Fregia home to tie it up at 2-2.
Gossett entered to open the seventh, making his first appearance since 2016 after missing all of 2017 with an injury. He struck out the first batter he faced, but the next three Golden Flashes all reached base, loading the sacks with one away for O’Brien. Gossett would set him down on strikes and then do the same to Schuler, punching out the side while leaving the bases loaded to keep things knotted at 2-2.
Sam Houston then surged ahead for the first time since the second inning in the bottom half. Sophomore Cross Austin pinch hit to open the frame and smashed a 2-0 pitch from Havekost off the left-field wall for a triple to get the go-ahead run on third base. Hunter Hearn then deposited a 1-0 pitch one at-bat later over the left-field fence for a 2-run homer that gave the Kats a 4-2 lead.
Gossett would have to work out of trouble again in the eighth as Kent State used three straight singles to load the bases again with nobody out. But they would not be able to take advantage. The Bearkat right-hander coaxed a ground ball to third that resulted in an out at the plate before catcher Jordan Cannon made a nice play near the KSU dugout to record the second out. Gossett then finished it off himself, picking up his fourth strikeout of the game by getting Mason Mamarella swinging.
Things looked to be in the balance for the Kats in the ninth, even despite O’Brien reaching on an error with one away. But an infield single followed, and then another with two outs from Ben Carew that cut the lead to 4-3. A walk to Michael Turner then loaded the bases to bring up Hollander. The Golden Flash shortstop battled, fouling off three straight pitches from Mikolajchak before tagging the ninth pitch of the at-bat out to left field to surge Kent State to the win.
Coach Matt Deggs on being one strike away...
"This game is a very humbling game. Regardless of the results on the scoreboard I thought we played really well. These are two great teams going at each other. I thought we our kind of game and it was good that Seth Ballew came out and gave us five innings and then Riley Gossett after missing all of last year threw the ball really well. We bridged it to Nick Mikolajchak who had 13 saves last year and he pitched his heart out and it didn't work out for us this time. I'll throw him in 100 out of 100 times. I thought we battled and competed against a really good arm from them tonight. It all boils down to getting the knack at the right time and Kent State got that. Hats off to Kent State."
Coach Deggs on Hunter Hearn’s home run...
"Eli Kraus pitched really well and then we ran his pitch count up near 100 in five innings and we thought Hearn could match up well with the relief pitcher they had in the game. Just like that he continued doing what he left off doing last year. I thought Andrew Fregia played a really good game and Jordan Cannon first time behind the plate in a long time and I thought he caught extremely well. Hey look, it’s the first game and we plan on playing a bunch of these so we have a lot to work on and we were right there to get the win with one strike away. Disappointment isn't all that bad, it will toughen us up and we will come back from this."