STATESBORO-----Sophomore Jared Walsh made his pitching debut in the ninth and struck out the side plus added a home run Friday to lead Georgia to a 6-5 win over Georgia Southern.
A near-record crowd of 3,103 at JI Clements Stadium were treated to a thriller in the season opener and first meeting between the in-state rivals since 2005.
The Bulldogs (1-0) loaded the bases with two outs in the first but came up empty. The Eagles (0-1) used the momentum to build a 2-0 lead in their first at bat. Scooter Williams reached on a leadoff walk and Ben Morgan followed with a base hit. A wild pitch moved both Eagles in to scoring position. On a 3-2 pitch, catcher Chase Griffin delivered a two-run single. He would move to second on a passed ball and then scored on a base hit by Garren Palmer for a 3-0 advantage.
Georgia stormed back in the second, sending 10 men to the plate and surging ahead 5-3. Walsh, who started the game in right field, got the rally started by blasting the first pitch of the frame in to the trees in right field. It was his second career home run. Freshman J.T. Phillips collected an infield single in his debut and came around on an RBI-triple by sophomore Nelson Ward (4-for-5). Senior Curt Powell (3-fo--5) tied the game with a run-scoring single. Later in the frame, sophomore Hunter Cole made it 4-3 with an RBI-single and freshman Daniel Nichols capped the scoring with a fielder’s choice. The Bulldogs took advantage of a two-out miscue by the Eagles to add a run in the third for a 6-3 lead. The Eagles cut it to 6-5 with a two-out, two-run single by Hunter Thomas off senior Blake Dieterich in the fifth.
Georgia starter Sean McLaughlin tossed four innings and allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in his debut. He became the first freshman pitcher in Bulldog history to start a season opener, and he wound up with a victory too. GSU starter Justin Hess got the loss after surrendering six runs on eight hits in three innings. The Eagles got exceptional relief from Josh Stevenson, who blanked the Bulldogs for 4.1 innings with no walks and eight strikeouts. He left with two on and one out in the eighth. Chris Myers came on and got senior shortstop Kyle Farmer to hit into a double play to keep it a one-run contest.
Georgia turned to its bullpen again in the bottom of the eighth in sophomore Ross Ripple, and he hit the first two Eagles of the inning. Ripple got Tyler Avera to pop out on a 3-2 offering for the first out. Then with a 1-1 count to Kyle Streicher, the Bulldogs lifted Ripple in favor of redshirt sophomore Grant Earls. It was the Bulldog debut for Earls who was redshirted in 2011 and was injured and didn’t pitch in 2012. Streicher swung at Earls’ first pitch and bounced one to third for a fielder’s choice as the Bulldogs got the runner at second while Eagle left fielder Hunter Thomas made it to third. Pinch-hitter Stryker Brown reached on a four-pitch walk to load the bases for Ben Morgan. He got him to ground out to first to protect the one-run advantage.
In the ninth, Georgia looked to Walsh who was limited to a designated hitter role a year ago while recovering from elbow surgery. This season, he is projected as the closer, and he passed his first test. Entering the game with a 6-5 lead and facing the middle of the Eagle order, Walsh struck out the first two hitters in Griffin and T.D. Davis before allowing an infield hit to Palmer. Then, he battled back to strikeout Thomas to clinch the victory and his first career save.
“This was a good win, a hard-fought game, and it was Jared Walsh day, he did a bit of everything for us,” said Georgia coach David Perno. “The top of the order in Nelson Ward and Curt Powell had a very productive day too. Grant Earls came through, and it was the first time he got to pitch as a Bulldog, and it was a tough spot in a tight game. This was good atmosphere, great crowd and a good start for us. We need to play better, and we’ve got two more games here. Overall, I was pleased with how we responded.”
Ward set a career-high with a four-hit game including an RBI-triple in Georgia’s five-run outburst. Walsh became the first pitcher since Josh Fields in 2008 to hit a home run and register a save in the same game. Incidentally, Fields did it in the season opener, a 9-7 win over top-ranked Arizona.
The series continues Saturday with first pitch slated for 2:30 p.m.