Caitlin Nealer may be just a freshman, but when the pitcher steps in the circle, she plays far above her years.
The ability to pitch like an aging veteran proved to be invaluable against DePauw on Saturday. Nealer pitched both ends of the North Coast Athletic Conference doubleheader, working herself out of one jam after another to help the Gators pick up the sweep with 8-0 and 6-4 wins at the Robertson Athletic Complex.
“Getting the sweep is a big deal,” said Allegheny head coach Sandra Sanford. “It’s a big deal for us as far as controlling our own destiny to get in the tournament, which is our goal. We want to get in the tournament and then go from there.
“And everything is so tight right now. For us to win two from a team that is very, very well respected not just in our conference, but the country, I mean, it’s big.”
Big may be an understatement.
Allegheny (23-8-1, 9-3 NCAC) entered the day with a one-game lead over both DePauw and Hiram. The Tigers (22-10, 6-6) now find themselves three games back of the Gators. Meanwhile, the Terriers (16-14, 8-4) picked up a sweep of their own to stay one game back, setting up an even bigger doubleheader for AC against Hiram on Wednesday.
“We know that every time we are out its a big deal,” said Sanford. “They’ll feel good about (the sweep) today and then it will be right back to what we do to get ready for Hiram.”
You can bet Nealer will be ready.
Despite the rain and cold weather that made it feel more like late autumn than mid spring, the right-hander was able to keep her own cool in the circle. She suffered a little bit with her control, but when her team needed a big out, Nealer threw her best stuff.
That was a theme for the day.
In the opener, Nealer allowed runners to reach second and third in three straight innings. In the second, she worked out of the jam with a fielder’s choice and a strikeout. The third came with two outs, and the freshman got out of that jam with a comebacker for the final out. In the fourth, she worked a fielder’s choice for the first out, then struck out the next two batters to end the threat.
In the sixth, she gave up back-to-back singles to start the inning. After a strikeout and flyout to right, she walked the bases full. But another fly ball to center closed the frame.
“I just tried to relax,” said Nealer. “I reminded myself that we were up and that the runner on didn’t matter. Then I just tried to make my pitch and get the out, and that is what happened.”
The nightcap was even more hectic for Nealer.
The Tigers loaded the bases with one out in the very first inning, only to come away empty handed thanks to a fielder’s choice and pop up to Nealer. In the fifth, Nealer faced runners on second and third with one out and two runs already in. Again, she made the right pitches to coax a grounder to third and strikeout to end the threat.
Nealer got some help in the seventh. After loading the bases with non outs, she got the fourth batter in the inning to hit into a fielder’s choice, erasing the lead runner before she could score. The next batter hit a double to deep left center field. Two runs crossed the plate to cut the lead to 6-4. Center fielder Stephanie Fort got to the ball and threw a pellet to first baseman Halea Hayden, who then fired a BB to catcher Felicia Gowanlock to nail the third runner trying to score. Nealer ended the game by getting the next batter to watch strike three go by.
“I have total confidence in (my teammates),” said Nealer, “both offensively and defensively. It makes it easier to relax and throw my game knowing they have my back.”
The Gators offense did its work as well.
In the opener, it was Fort who did most of the damage. The junior roped an RBI double in the first inning to give AC the early 1-0 lead. In the third, she drew a two-out walk and later scored to make it 2-0. She reached on a fielder’s choice in the fifth and scored the first of three runs as Allegheny took a 5-0 lead. And, in the sixth, Fort ended the game with a three-run, walkoff homer to left center field.
“(Fort) made some great adjustments at the plate and is seeing the ball well,” said Sanford. “She is a fiery player and does a great job being an emotional catalyst for us.
In the nightcap, everyone got into the act.
Nealer hit a solo homer in the second. Marina Scarantino, who led off the opener with a walk and scored on Fort’s double, walked to lead off the first in the nightcap and later scored. Sadie Stuart added a much-needed two-run blast to dead center in the fifth that pushed AC’s lead to 6-2.
“We were firing on all cylinders today,” said Sanford. “That is what you have to do against a team like (DePauw). And the kids are seeing the ball well right now.”
Fort had a monster double dip, going a combined 4-for-7 with four runs, a double, a homer and four RBIs. Stuart went 3-for-7 with a homer, two runs and three RBIs, while Hayden was 2-for-5 with three runs scored.
Nealer pitched a total of 13 innings, giving up four runs on 12 hits and nine walks while striking out 12.
Holly Paris collected two of DePauw’s five hits in the opener. Cymone Allen hit a pair of doubles in the nightcap.
Matthew Digiacomo can be reached at 724-6370, or by email at email@example.com.