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NAIA No. 22 Taylor slips past Manchester

SWING: Manchester University’s Matt Pritz swings at a pitch against DePauw during the Spartans doubleheader last weekend.

BY CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

UPLAND — The gaudy record and national ranking the Taylor University baseball team enjoys is all well and good, but the Trojans currently are not running on all cylinders.

While the offense is slumbering through the cold Indiana early spring, the Trojans have been riding hot pitching and defense. And there was plenty of pitching and defense Tuesday afternoon in a 4-3 victory over Manchester University at Winterholter Field.

Wyatt Whitman delivered the big hit, a two-out, three-run double in the third inning that put the Trojans ahead 3-1, and then Josh Lane delivered a run-scoring double with two outs in the fourth. Four Taylor pitchers — a trio of freshmen and junior Tucker Waddups — limited the Spartans to seven hits.

“We just needed some separation,” Taylor coach Kyle Gould said of Whitman’s hit. “The good thing with this team right now is we can play close with anybody, and the bad thing is we play close with anybody.”

Taylor, the NAIA’s No. 22-ranked team, improved to 18-6 with the non-conference win while Manchester dropped to 1-8. The Trojans, though, had just lost two of three against Huntington University, although they won the final contest 5-1 Monday.

“This was similar to the Huntington series where we just couldn’t get that big hit,” Gould said. “We had guys on base, but we’ve been struggling, offensively. There’s some things we’re doing well — we’re just struggling to score runs.”

Manchester scored a run in the second on Isaiah Knight-Nerassen’s RBI single, but Taylor shortstop Josh Lane started a double play to end the inning. The Spartans lead was short-lived after Jake Wilson relieved starter Jacob Van Pelt to start the third proceeded to get in a bases-loaded jam.

Whitman attacked a first-pitch fastball for a double in the left-center field gap and clear the bases. Tanner Kolbe had walked to lead off the third, Nick Rushe singled with one out and then Andrew Kennedy coaxed another walk from Wilson with two outs.

“Anytime we have guys in scoring position we’re always looking to do damage and score runs,” Whitman said. “We go up there and look for an early count fastball to hit a double or hit a home run on, and that was what I was looking for.”

Taylor’s final run was mostly created by pinch-run specialist Kyle Kelsheimer, who entered as a courtesy runner after catcher Caleb Fox drew a walk from Spartans pitcher Zach White. Kelsheimer, a former Wabash Apache, stole second base for his 52nd successful theft out of 55 attempts in the senior’s career with the Trojans, and he scored when Lane roped a double in almost the same spot as Whitman had the previous inning.

Knight-Nerassen cut Manchester’s deficit to 4-2 in the fourth after a fit of wildness from Taylor reliever Titen Bennett, who made back-to-back wild pitches. Carter Stump replaced Bennett and threw one pitch to get the Trojans out of a bases-loaded jam, then encountered problems of his own in the fifth.

The fifth opened with Whitman ranging far to chase down a deep flyball in centerfield, and then second baseman Rushe made a stellar diving catch just behind first base. Stump then issued a walk and hit a batter before striking out Knight-Nerassen to end the inning.

Waddups entered after Bennett gave up a single to open the sixth and closed out the win, although Manchester’s Matt Pritz led off the eighth with a double and eventually scored on pinch-hitter Brett Kron’s ground out. Waddups closed out the game by retiring the Spartans in order in the ninth for only the second time in the game.

Freshman left-hander Luke Carlson started for Taylor and pitched three innings, allowing one run on four hits with two walks and one strikeout.

“We’ve just struggled on offense for a while,” Gould said. “But, as you can see, we’ve been incredible defensively and what you seen tonight we’ve done all year.”

“The defense has been great and we struggled throwing strikes tonight and put too many guys on,” he added. “Luckily, Tucker came in and threw great and stabilized it. But the plays that Josh Lane and Nick Rushe and Wyatt Whitman made and Caleb Fox was good behind the plate and I thought that was the difference in the game.”

Taylor must break out of its offensive funk without premier hitter Nathan Targgart, who broke his arm in the Trojans’ eighth game and had surgery. Targgart was 20 hits away from becoming the Trojans’ all-time record but is likely done for the season.

“It’s just way too early to tell,” Gould said of Targgart. “Maybe he can come back late in the season and that would be the (Crossroads League) tournament, but that might be too much for him to do it. 

“He was going to smash our record and he was probably the best hitter in our league and has some of the best seasons in the history of our program. It’s been a loss, but we’ve had a few guys step up.”

While Manchester hasn’t played as many games, coach Rick Espeset said his team’s biggest issue is developing the younger players.

“We’re fortunate to come here and play Taylor, traditionally, and being on the turf field helps,” Espeset said. “But we’ve only been able to practice on our field one time, so getting out and putting our young guys in game situations and see how they react and then it helps us coach them because until you see them in game action you’re not exactly sure how they are going to react.”

Espeset also proved not to be worried about the level of competition as a Division III side even despite his side’s slow start to the season.

“I’ve coached long enough that I don’t try to schedule wins and we just look for good competition so it tests our guys and then we try to get ready for our conference schedule,” he said.

Manchester is still just shy of three weeks away from the start of conference play which will allow Espeset and his staff an opportunity to find the right balance after its 1-8 start.

“We’re coming off consistent playing,” he said. “We played five (games) in South Carolina and we just came off three games so it’s not like we’re new to the field and for us we’re a quarter of the way through the season already. I felt like we’re okay as far as being outside, now we’re still working on putting out the right lineup and in the right spots and more games will help us figure that out.”

The Spartans will have a weekend series against Heidelberg University on the docket with a road doubleheader on Saturday before returning home on Sunday to wrap up the series.