Entering the season, the UNCA men’s baseball team expected to get a second chance after a cancelled season, but the Bulldogs hit an early slump, winning only two games out of their first twelve.
Entering into conference play at the beginning of March, the team was coming off a sluggish but promising start, playing two mid-week games and a weekend series against opponents from the Southern Conference. Despite the losses against ETSU and losing an extra-innings heartbreaker to Wofford, the bulldogs felt close to turning a corner.
“I think it is belief and baseball is just one of those funny games where you win one of those close ones and all of a sudden your confidence changes,” said head coach Scott Friedholm, shortly before the weekend series against High Point. “And it changes with a pitcher coming in the eighth and knowing he’s going to get those three outs rather than hoping he gets those three outs. I think all these games are going to be close now that we’re in conference. Momentum is so big in this game. A guy makes a great play defensively to end an inning, all of a sudden you score three runs.”
But as conference play loomed, COVID-19 reared its head, adding more uncertainty to the season. Instead of playing Presbyterian for the first weekend, the team learned the Blue Hose had 20 possible infections on the baseball team, postponing the series. The next day, the team learned the schedule had switched, and they were now playing High Point, whose series against Winthrop had been postponed. Friedholm said schedules being switched last minute would be a frequent occurrence throughout the season.
The first two conference series brought with them mixed emotions.
Upon traveling to High Point, the Bulldogs lost the two games in the Saturday doubleheader. The Asheville pitching left much to be desired, with relief pitching failing to keep the games close, draining the enthusiasm the hitters had to mount a comeback.
The final game of the series proved more interesting as the Bulldogs mounted an eighth inning rally, scoring six runs to bring the score to within one run. With the score at 11-10 in the ninth, the Bulldogs couldn’t pull off the comeback, going 1-2-3 to end the game.
A few players continued their hot start and others tried to get the ball rolling in the Highpoint series. Freshman Ty Kaufman raked in four hits and two RBI’s in his first weekend leading off the lineup and veteran, third baseman Brandon Lankford lived up to his power hitting reputation by blasting two no-doubter home runs.
“There’s definitely some pressure there just because you want to prove you deserve to be on the field. But at the same time, I’ve been playing for 13 years and just keep having fun with it. Everything will work out,” said Kaufman on leading off the lineup as a freshman.
The next weekend, the Bulldogs traveled to North Charleston to face the Charleston Southern Buccaneers, traveling by charter bus for the first time this season. The team had been piling into four transit vans for previous games, an attempt to socially distance themselves as they travel.
After a full week to practice and prepare for the Buccaneers, Asheville came into the series determined not to let another close game slip away. The Bulldogs’ offense exploded in the Friday night game, blowing out CSU 15-3. The flurry of punches came in the fifth inning as UNCA put up eight runs, capped off by a Lankford grand slam. Freshman left-hander Justin Honeycutt also pitched four scoreless innings in relief, stifling any hope in making the game close.
The grand slam by the fifth year senior moved him one step closer to UNC Asheville history, needing only five more home runs this season to become the school’s all-time home run leader, breaking the current record of 42 held by Brian Shehan, who has held the record since 1990. Having his senior year cut short by the coronavirus, Lankford ended his 2020 senior year with 34 home runs, returning for fifth to capture the home run crown.
“It feels pretty cool to be close to the record, considering how long UNCA has had a baseball program,” Lankford said. “I knew I had the potential to break the record but I never thought about it too much. It’s definitely a cool experience and I’m thankful for my years at Asheville. I’d love to have my name in the record books.”
After a blowout win on Friday, the team looked to keep up the energy in the Saturday double header. In the Friday game, tension grew between the dugouts of CSU and UNCA, especially after the Lankford grand slam sent the UNCA bench into frenzy, thoroughly irritating their opponents.
Charleston Southern lashed back at the Bulldogs, taking commanding wins in both games in the doubleheader. In fact, because of new rules implemented because of COVID-19, doubleheader games can be ended early if a team is up by 10 runs, which happened to the Bulldogs in the first game, losing 15-5 and ending the game in the eighth inning. The two losses stifled any momentum gained in the previous night’s win.
They recovered slightly with a tough loss to the hottest team in the Big South Conference, USC Upstate, who had gone 25-7 since the start of the 2020 season. Upstate had bolstered their roster in recent years with junior-college transfers and touted a flame-throwing pitching staff, with multiple throwing mid-90 mph.
Despite the preseason hype, Asheville hung with the Spartans in a pitching duel until Upstate broke the 1-1 game with three runs in the seventh. The Bulldogs could not mount a comeback and ended up losing 4-1. The Asheville players showed improvement, with some pitchers hopefully gaining some confidence heading into their next series.
“We’re doing all right. I think it’s just chips aren’t going away right now,” Kaufman said before their series against Campbell. “When the offense clicks, the defense is not clicking. And then when the defense clicks, the offense isn’t clicking. So we just got to get one game. But once we get the offense, and the defense clicking, I think we’re gonna be an interesting team to watch.”
Kaufman’s prediction proved true, with the Bulldogs winning the series against No.1 ranked Campbell.