The Pitt baseball team’s season got off to an exciting start over the weekend, as the Panthers went 3-1 in the Sunshine State Classic, sweeping Oakland in two games, falling just shy of a comeback against Saint Louis and obliterating Toledo 17-3.
In the four-game series, Pitt gave up an average of three runs per game and recorded its first shutout of the season against Oakland on Sunday, and much of its defensive success was due to the steady-handed play of its bullpen, particularly relievers R.J. Freure and Chase Smith.
Freure first took the mound on Saturday, relieving starting pitcher Dan Hammer, who had a rough go of it against Saint Louis. Although Hammer got off to a decent start, the Billikens seemed to figure him out by the top of the third, as they hit two singles, two doubles and a two-run homer to take a 4-0 lead.
Hammer was given another inning after that, but he was replaced by Freure after allowing a runner to get into scoring position in the top of the fifth. The reliever got off to a rocky start, giving up a double that brought in the runner he inherited. He then induced a flyout and allowed another run to come in before hitting a batter and getting out of the inning with a strikeout.
However, Freure found another gear, as he then struck out the side in the top of the sixth. He returned in the top of the seventh but was pulled after giving up a four-pitch walk. That wouldn’t be the last the Florida crowd saw of him, though, as he was called into action again on Sunday.
In Pitt’s final game of the weekend, Freure took the mound again to relieve starting pitcher Blair Calvo after three innings. He would stay in the game for five innings himself, facing 17 batters and recording a career-high nine strikeouts. He also gave up just two hits, no walks and no runs, setting up Yaya Chentouf for the save and notching his first win of the year.
Although Freure put on perhaps the team’s best pitching performance of the weekend on Sunday, Smith was just about flawless in each of his two appearances out of the bullpen, as he gave up zero runs and zero hits in 4.1 innings split over two games.
Smith’s debut was brief but impressive, as he put in 1.1 innings of work against Oakland on Friday, facing four batters and recording a groundout, a strikeout and two flyouts. Coach Joe Jordano replaced him with Kevin Henriksen after that, a move that saw Pitt give up two runs.
Jordano would turn to Smith again in Pitt’s matchup with Saint Louis. In that game, Smith would pitch the final three frames for Pitt, facing 10 batters and again giving up no runs and no hits. Again, Smith looked comfortable pitching to contact, as he induced five flyouts and a groundout for an inning-ending double play. He also notched two strikeouts for good measure.
While a four-game series is a small sample size and the competition was far from the best the Panthers will see this year, Pitt’s pitching appeared to be a strength for much of the weekend, and Freure and Smith could be players to keep an eye on this season.