PEMBROKE — With all the excitement and emotions that came from Saturday’s baseball game between The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Flagler, Gunner Deal was calm, cool and collected, even during the most rousing moments.
The junior right-handed reliever was thrown into the game during a hectic situation, as emotions started to get heated late in the Peach Belt Conference team and the outside noise didn’t phase him. Deal got out of the bad spot in the top of the seventh inning, and then eased through the final two innings of the Braves’ 5-3 come-from-behind victory that clinched the series for UNCP.
Making his 15th appearance, the most on the UNCP pitching staff, on the mound with runners on second and third in the seventh, the Raleigh native kept his focus small.
“I just go out there and look at the glove and throw it,” he said. “That’s the best way to do it instead of over-thinking it. That’s my outlook this season coming off my last injury, don’t over-think it and just trust yourself and let it work.”
Deal worked around giving up a walk to load the bases and came a split second away from his defense behind him turning a double play that would’ve kept Flagler off the scoreboard in the inning. The Saints (29-17, 15-11 PBC) did score a run on a Jason Moore grounder the UNCP (32-12, 13-12 PBC) defense turned into a fielder’s choice that put Flagler up 3-2. From there, Deal put up zeros on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet.
“We go to Gunner in that situation and he gets the ground ball, but we just don’t turn it. They got one run in that inning,” UNCP coach Paul O’Neil said. “If they get multiple runs in that inning, then it’s a different baseball game. By limiting the damage to just one run, that keeps everything in play for us.”
Deal forced Flagler to three fly balls in the eighth inning, and then struck out the side with three strikeouts, all leaving Saints batters looking when the third strike was called to cap off his 2 2/3 innings without a hit in the ninth inning.
UNCP’s offense gave its relief pitcher some help in the bottom of the eighth inning as Trey Jacobs and Luke Jackson reached to lead off the bottom of the inning to set up Seth Hartings’ game-clinching two-run double to right center field. Hartings scored the final run of the three-run frame on a wild pitch two batters later.
That was just what Deal needed, even though he didn’t show much emotion externally when it happened.
“It’s awesome seeing that, but I try to stay calm and collected in the dugout a much as I can, instead of showing too much emotion,” Deal said.
“That’s I think the fourth time this season I’ve been in a game this season and we have went behind and then come back and the dugout is all going crazy. Our team always seems to know how to get the job done when it is time.”
The three middle-of-the-order bats for the Braves of Jacobs, Jackson and Hartings combined for six hits, four RBIs and four runs scored in the game. That has been the norm for the Braves this season, including the recent hot streak where they have won 10 of their last 13 games.
“The middle of the order has been strong,” O’Neil said. “There’s been a lot going. Adding Elijah (Helton) to the lineup, he’s been strong. We’ve made some adjustments to put (Ethan) Baucom in the outfield and Connor Grainger at first and DH-ing Elijah and he’s been a very positive guy for us.”
To aid with the recent successes, consistently solid performances from Game One starter Anthony Burke helps as well.
“The last three Peach Belt outings, he’s gone (a complete game). That gives you a huge chance as far as you’re not using any bullpen on Friday night,” O’Neil said. “Our pitching is starting to come around.”
Saturday the Braves hit the bullpen and found a positive result in Deal, and he said there has been more understanding from the pitching staff on what is expected of them as of late.
“We’re all figuring it out and starting to come together to figure out our strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Hopefully we will get hot and stay hot for the rest of the season. We are getting back to playing our brand of baseball.”
Flagler’s Ethan Crout and Sean Lawlor each had solo home runs in the fourth and fifth innings to sandwich two runs scored by the Braves in the bottom of the fourth when Jacobs doubled in Baucom and then scored on a Jackson infield single on back-to-back at-bats.
The teams resume the final game of the series today at 1 p.m.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.