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April 03, 2009

 

Red Dragons extend recent dominance of Bombers

Dragons

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Mike Avery, of SUNY Cortland, slides home with his team’s first run Thursday as Ithaca College catcher Mike Armstrong awaits the throw in the first inning of the Red Dragons’ 8-3 win.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

This was what Ithaca College baseball coach George Valesente suggested following a frustrating afternoon against arch rival SUNY Cortland.
“We bring out the best in them, maybe,” said the venerable Valesente, who in his 17th season of guiding this potent Bombers program has had trouble handling the Red Dragons in recent campaigns.
Cortland was certainly on its best behavior while collecting 13 hits and displaying some errorless glovework in the field to secure an 8-3 victory over visiting Ithaca before a nice, sunshine-soaked Thursday afternoon crowd at Wallace Field.
Since the spring of 2005, the Red Dragons are 9-2-1 (that’s right, the two teams played to a 2-2 tie five years ago) against their talented upstate adversaries to back the previous Valesente “bring out the best in them” claim.
This Cortland teamed ranked 19th nationally has now reeled off four consecutive victories, too, while improving to 14-6 heading into a crucial four-game weekend where conference road tests at Brockport and Fredonia are next on the agenda.
“We’re starting to gel now, so it should be a good couple of weeks, ” said junior catcher Andersen Gardner, one of just three returning starters from a team that won a school record 38 consecutive games while sweeping up SUNY Athletic Conference competition and reaching the NCAA Division III World Series a year ago.
Cortland scored in each of the opening five innings and never trailed to beat the Bombers (12-5) this time around.
Sophomore southpaw Mike Mahay pitched well two outs into the fifth inning. The only runs he gave up were a two-out, two-run homer Ithaca second baseman Dylan Perez launched over the leftfield fence in the top of the fourth inning.
Sophomore first baseman Alex Coffey, making only his seventh start filling in for injured senior John Zilnicki, went 3-for-4 with an RBI and scored twice to hike his batting to .419. Designated hitter Jason Simone also had three hits and scored a couple of runs as every Red Dragon starter except leadoff man Gardner hit safely in the victory.
And the Red Dragon defense was flawless, including shortstop Andrew Pezzuto turning a crucial inning-ending double play in the eighth inning. Ithaca opened that frame with three straight hits off reliever Brandon DeRosa before a fly ball out preceded that twin killing. Meanwhile, centerfielder and Cortland High grad Mike Avery was kept busy running down eighth balls in the outfield — though the best grab of the day was leftfielder Mike Gimblette stretching to reach a deep shot in the gap by Ithaca leadoff man Matt Samela to conclude the third inning.
“THIS WAS ONE of our best ball games start to finish,” said Cortland coach Joe Brown. It was an opinion he shared with former mentor Valesente, Brown a past Ithaca pitching coach. “We were aggressive with our hitting and we were aggressive with our fielding. We made some really nice plays.”
“Cortland played well and made things happen,” agreed Valesente.
This game was postponed from its original Wednesday date, cold and wet weather causing that cancellation. And with both teams having four league games upcoming this weekend, pitching posed a problem — which is why Ithaca used six different arms over eight innings.
That is also why the brisk work of Mahay was so important. He breezed along until giving up the Perez home run, allowing just three baserunners up to then — one of those was erased trying to swipe second by catcher Gardner.
With a 50-pitch limit, Mahay barely exceeded that number when he exited in the fifth inning after getting back-to-back fly ball outs after Ithaca’s Rob Zappia legged out a leadoff double. “He threw well. He hit his spots,” said catcher Gardner of the Cortland starter, a fast ball and curve the only pitches in the Mahay repertoire.
While Mahay was keeping IC relatively quiet, Cortland was going about the business of scoring runs.
With one out in the bottom of the first, Avery singled and race to third on a Kevin Jackson single right. Avery scored on a Steve Nickel groundout which turned into a double play when Jackson was thrown out at third base, too.
Simone led off the second with a single, was bunted to second by Pezzuto and scored on a Coffey double down the leftfield line. That made it 2-0 Cortland.
Another run arrived in the third with more textbook baseball. Gardner walked, Avery bunted him along and Simone eventually delivered a clutch two-out single.
MORE IMPORTANTLY, after the Perez homer pulled Ithaca within 3-2, Cortland opened the bottom of the fourth with doubles by Coffey and Gimblette followed by a Shawn Bailey single — and all three of those Red Dragons scored to put Cortland back in control.
Cortland added an unearned run in the fifth and Simone run following a leadoff single in the seventh to finish its scoring. Except for the sixth inning when Ithaca’s Pete McDaniel breezed through a 1-2-3 inning, the Red Dragons had someone in scoring position in every other frame.
“We don’t have the depth we’ve had in the past,” said Valesente, which is why he planned to use most of his staff hoping to hold off the Red Dragons and have arms left for weekend play in the Empire 8. Ithaca’s depth took a blow because two expected junior hurlers are no longer around, one drafted and the other leaving school. A knee injury to a starting catcher also has been tough to overcome.
“Our kids have done a decent job up to his point,” noted Valesente. “We’ve played together and we’ve pitched well, until today. We’ve been played well defensive, too, until today. But that’s not to make excuses, Cortland played a great game.”
Now the Red Dragons, off to a 2-0 start in the SUNYAC, have to keep that going starting with the trip to Brockport Saturday where junior left-hander Matt Tone (3-0, 3.26 ERA) and senior righty Nicolas Blanco (3-2, 2.42 ERA) are the scheduled starters in a doubleheader that starts at noon.