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Nico Popa’s 8th Inning Home Run Helped Pitt to 5-4 Win over Duke

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For the second straight Sunday, Pitt baseball relied on clutch hitting and late-inning heroics from the back end of the bullpen to steal a win from an ACC opponent. Pitt (7-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) was saved by the bat of junior outfielder Nico Popa and the arms of junior reliever Dylan Lester and senior closer Jordan McCrum in a 5-4 win over Duke (6-5 overall, 3-3 ACC) in the last of a three-game set against the Blue Devils. 

Things looked bleaker with each passing inning for the Panthers in Sunday’s contest. Pitt looked overmatched in games one and two of this weekend’s series and entered the eighth inning six outs away from erasing the momentum created by the historic sweep of Florida State a week ago. 

A three-RBI day from Duke’s graduate student outfielder Peter Matt and senior catcher Mike Rothenberg kept the Blue Devils in front for most of the game. Matt doubled in the first and tripled in the fourth, scoring a run both times, and Rothenberg launched a two run homer in the third to keep the Panthers from clawing back. 

Pitt had been largely unable to come up with timely hits for the entire series through the third inning of Sunday’s game, but broke through just in the nick of time. Sophomore infielder Brock Franks got the Panthers on the board with an RBI-single in the top of the fourth inning and a sacrifice fly from Popa two frames later cut the deficit to just one before Popa’s two-run home run in the eighth inning provided Pitt a late lead.

Graduate student right-hander Steven Hansen started on the mound for the Panthers for the second consecutive week. He’s been head coach Mike Bell’s swingman throughout the early portion of this season, filling innings as both a starter and reliever. Hansen has appeared in four games and made two starts in the absence of presumed Sunday starter Billy Corcoran. 

Entering Sunday, Hansen had yet to surrender a run of any kind through his eight innings pitched. But he was touched up early against the Blue Devils, and ended the day responsible for all four runs Duke plated. 

Fortunately for Pitt, the bullpen held down 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief behind him. Lester was the bridge to McCrum. As the offense slowly chipped away at the deficit, he delivered a brilliant three innings during which he surrendered just two hits and a walk. Lester has been Pitt’s best reliever so far this season — among Panthers who have thrown more than 10 total innings, he leads in ERA and WHIP — and was rewarded with his first win of the season on Sunday following Popa’s home run.

Courtesy of Pitt baseball

McCrum closed the game in similarly dominant fashion. He struck out three — including two in the bottom of the ninth — over 2 1/3 innings of work without allowing a run.

Pitt has momentarily righted the ship after losing consecutive contests for the first time in 2021. They will return to Pittsburgh for another week’s rest before returning south on Friday to open another ACC series vs. Georgia Tech beginning at 4 p.m.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
 
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