Junior closer James Connell, who bounced back from Tommy John surgery in the offseason, entered the weekend ranked 14th in the nation and atop the A-Sun in saves.
It wasn’t perfect, but Kennesaw State’s bullpen stepped up in a big way Sunday afternoon, thwarting Mercer’s comeback attempt in the late innings. Connell recorded his fifth save of the year to seal a 5-4 victory over the Bears and prevent a series sweep at Stillwell Stadium.
“There is depth in our pen from the right and the left side of the mound,” Kennesaw State coach Mike Sansing said. “James has had some good outings after coming off of Tommy John surgery. His arm strength is close to where it was. He didn’t have to build up as many pitches in rehab as the starters do and was able to get him back quicker.”
Connell found himself in a tough situation in the top of the ninth. A hit batsman, bunt single and sacrifice bunt gave Mercer (16-5, 2-1) runners on second and third with one out.
Facing the heart of the Bears’ order, Connell struck out Nick Backlund with a breaking ball for the second out of the inning and got Austin Barrett to swing at a fastball on a 1-2 count to end the game.
“I knew I had to get the guys out at the end,” said Connell, a junior from Roswell. “I just needed to bear down and do what I needed to do.”
Connell might not have gotten the opportunity had it not been for a clutch strikeout by reliever Justin McCalvin. After relieving starter Kevin Kyle with two outs in the seventh, McCalvin gave up a two-run double to Chesney Young, which allowed Mercer to pull within one after the Owls (10-10, 1-2) built a 5-1 lead in the fourth.
After getting out of the seventh with no further damage, Mercer threatened McCalvin in the eighth with two outs and runners on first and third. But McCalvin buckled down and struck out Logan Gaines on two sliders and a fastball.
“Once I went up (0-2), I got my confidence back and had to rely on my stuff,” McCalvin said.
With a relatively young roster this season, Sansing has tried different combinations in his lineups, and Kennesaw State has had a streaky season as a result. The Owls started the season with a four-game winning streak, capped by a 2-1 win at Georgia. Then they lost six of their next eight games before winning three of their last five going into the weekend.
Sansing said some of his lineups have worked, and admitted others have not, but Sunday’s seemed to click for the Owls — particularly through the contributions of Cal Simmons and Bo Way, who hit second and third.
Simmons, a freshman from Nashville in south Georgia, was 4-for-5 with a double and three RBIs and is now batting .304 on the season. His two-run single in the second inning gave the Owls a 4-0 lead.
Way was 2-for-5 with an RBI double in the first and has now hit in 17 straight games. The junior college transfer from Brunswick is batting a team-best .363.
Jacob Bruce was also solid at the plate, going 3-for-4 with a double.
“There’s no secret that we had some off days in trying to create opportunities to score,” said Sansing, in his 22nd season as the Owls’ coach. “Some days, it works and other days, it’s stagnant.”
Kyle got his third win of the season after pitching 6 2/3 innings and was aided by early run support.
After using five different pitchers over 11 innings in Friday’s 4-3 loss to Mercer, and two more in Saturday’s 5-1 setback, Sansing said he needed Kyle to go deep in Sunday’s series finale. Kyle went 6 2/3 innings and gave up four runs on six hits.
Kyle, a senior from Atlanta, has been one of the Owls’ most trusted pitchers this season, striking out a team-best 24 batters in 30 innings.
Former Lassiter High School pitcher Stephen Janas, easing back into action after suffering a season-ending injury last May, is off to a strong start. The junior has yet to allow a run through 15 innings across four limited starts.
McCalvin is also on a successful streak, having not allowed an earned run through 13 1/3 innings.