AVON PARK - Working with a modified starting pitching staff, South Florida State College team pounded out a 9-4 win over the Polk State College Eagles Sunday afternoon at Panther Field. The Suncoast Conference game gave the Panthers a 3-9 record in league play while Polk State fell to 7-5.
SFSC (10-22) entered the game with a beleaguered pitching staff reeling from injury issues and was fresh from a loss to St. Petersburg College.
"I told the guys that we are not out of this," SFSC coach Rick Hitt said. "I reminded them that 16 of our losses were by a total of 19 runs. That's a lot of one run games. Just one or two things done differently or better and this would be a different season. There are still 16 conference games left and it is going to be a dogfight."
With the Panthers limited in options for the starting pitcher on Sunday against the Eagles (19-11), they turned to Tyler Bender. Bender had been regulated to reliever in the bullpen throughout the season.
Bender stepped into the starting role as though he was the number one ace as he masterfully pitched into the sixth inning before running out of gas with two outs.
During that stretch, he gave up six hits and three runs, only one of which was earned.
Bender worked out of bases loaded jams in the first and third innings.
A sacrifice fly allowed one run to score before Bender struck out the next batter to end the inning with Polk State leading 1-0.
SFSC tied the game in the bottom of the second when Austin Johnson doubled to bring home Austin Bingham.
Bender worked out of another bases loaded situation in the top of the third. The first three Polk State batters each singled to load the bases with no outs. Bender was able to induce to foul out to the third baseman and a ground ball double play to end the threat with the game still tied.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Panther offense went on a hitting barrage to give their battling pitcher some run support.
Bingham, Bender, and Johnson singled to load the bases with no outs. Isaiah Dean and Chris Kazen each followed with one-run singles to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead with bases still loaded and no outs.
Dalton Scarborough drove in the third run with a sacrifice fly and Rodney Forbes brought in the fourth run with another single. One last run crossed the plate on a defensive error by Polk State as the Panthers finished the fourth inning with a 6-1 lead.
Bender again found himself in trouble in the fifth inning with runners on second and third with one out. Once again he rose to the occasion getting the two outs via a strikeout and popup to the shortstop to leave the inning unscathed and the game still tied at one.
Bender started the sixth inning strong despite giving up a leadoff single. A sacrifice bunt and a strikeout nearly assured another scoreless inning. Then the Panther defense slipped on a routine ground ball that allowed the inning to continue. Polk State's Cole Ondrejek followed with a two run triple as the Eagles narrowed the gap, 6-3.
A walk to the next batter ended Bender's night on the mound.
Polk State added another run in the top of the seventh as they sliced further into the Panther's lead to make it 6-4.
The Eagles momentum was quickly thwarted, though, as the Panther's brought in Sebring High School graduate, Kyle Cunningham, to pitch in relief. Cunningham shutdown the Eagles offense, allowing just one hit in the final three innings.
SFSC added three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by a two-run double by Forbes and Jorge Flores which capped the scoring for the inning. The run-producing single helped the Panthers pull away for the five-run win.
"We changed our routine and the guys responded well with a good pitching effort and 16 base hits," Hitt said. "Hopefully we can keep that up for the next couple of weeks."
The Panthers were scheduled to start a three game series against conference opponent State College of Florida on Monday at home, which was rained out. They'll play tonight in Bradenton with the third game on Friday at Panther field.
A makeup game date for Monday's rain out has not been scheduled.