CSU baseball loses first conference game of season, bounces back to split series

Luke Zahlmann

The CSU club baseball team suffered their first conference loss of the season to the University of Colorado on Monday night in their last series of

Sophomore pitcher Jared Van Vark winds up against Wyoming at City Park Field (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

the year.

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After winning the first game of the series last Wednesday, the Rams were unable to win game two of the three-game set to complete the perfect season in conference play. Pitcher Jared Van Vark took the mound in game two and found himself in an early hole after allowing back-to-back home runs in the first inning.

“I was throwing strikes,” Van Vark said. “(I) just wasn’t keeping the ball down. After the first inning, I started throwing my curve more and kept my fastballs low.”

Following a rough first inning, Van Vark settled down and allowed only one hit from the second to the fifth inning. Van Vark was able to throw strikes and trust that his defenders would make the play behind him.

“It’s always a huge help with lockdown defense like that,” Van Vark said. “Being able to just throw strikes and know that your defense will back you up and get outs takes a huge load off (my) shoulders.”

The Rams struggled to get anything going at the plate in the game, sans the fourth inning. In the fourth, the team drove in two runs with the help of a hit-by-pitch and an error. Matt Davis and Matthew Hart drove in one run a piece and the Rams tied the game up at two going into the fifth inning.

“I think just having a late-night game Monday kind of threw us off mentally,” Hart said. “But it’s unacceptable.”

Only one more run was scored by the visiting Rams while the host Buffaloes capitalized on Van Vark’s inability to hit the strike zone. After Van Vark loaded the bases with walks, pitcher Brad Johnson was unable to come in and stop the bleeding. Johnson ended up allowing only a single earned run of his own while Van Vark’s three leftover runners all came into score en route to CU’s 6-3 victory.

“We really just need to eliminate walks,” Head Coach Troy Tolar said, “do a better job of getting ahead in counts.”

The loss shattered the Rams’ undefeated conference record and revealed some blemishes in an otherwise stellar season. Van Vark, the teams ace, has struggled in the latter half of the season after starting in dominant fashion.

“(I’ve) been trying to really just get back to where I was in the beginning of the season,” Van Vark said. “I think when I fall behind, that’s when I end up struggling (and) fighting to get out of the hole I’ve dug myself into.”

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With the sour taste of defeat still lingering, the team came out cold at the plate once again in the third and final game of the series that did not start until 9 p.m. In the first two innings, the Rams mustered a single run by way of an RBI single by Sam Hughes.

“The team was pretty disappointed losing that game as they really wanted to sweep conference,” Tolar said. “We talked about the areas we could improve and making a statement the last game of conference and before we head to regionals.”

After a calm start, the prototypical Rams offense showed its true colors and began to fire on all cylinders. Courtesy of multiple errors and walks from CU, the Rams pushed their lead to 4-1 in the third inning with a two-run double by Trevor Bruton. In the bottom half of the inning, they maintained that lead thanks to an exhilarating double play.

“Our defense did really well,” Tolar said, “keeping us in the first game and allowing us to pull away in the second game.”

The Rams never looked back and tacked on nine more runs in the game. Meanwhile, Clint Watt limited constant Buff traffic to only one earned run over five innings despite allowing seven hits and a walk.

“I think the key to our success is just our numbers and reliability throughout the lineup,” Hart said. “Everyone has the potential to be a major asset on any given day and we have a ton of faith in each other.”

The Rams pulled away to win 13-3 and the team ended the regular season on a victorious note, taking two of three from the Buffs in Boulder.

The team finished as the regular season leader in their conference (13-1, 24-7 overall). The Rams’ regular season was marked by consistently sizzling bats and sound defense.

“I think the players are ready for the postseason and we are excited about the opportunity to compete at regionals,” Tolar said.

Ranked third overall in the nation, the team will head to Kearney, Nebraska for the Mid-America Regional playoffs. The tournament takes place from May 12-14.

“Overall, (the) key to winning playoffs is just putting it all together consistently,” Davis said. “Strong pitching, fielding and hitting in each and every playoff game will be the key. If we can put it all together in the coming weeks and be ready to go at regionals, I don’t see us losing.”

Collegian sports reporter Luke Zahlmann can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or by Twitter @lukezahlmann.