Is no comfortable lead going to be safe this season for USD?
Not until the middle relief improves. The Toreros watched early leads dwindle in the season's first two games against Southern and Bethune-Cookman. USD held on to win both games, so not much was made of it. There is something of a trend developing here, however.
The No. 11-ranked Toreros built an early 11-run lead Tuesday against Western Carolina at Cunningham Stadium, then watched the Catamounts rally for seven straight runs before order was restored. USD won 14-7 for its fourth straight victory.
The Toreros (7-3) scored six runs in the first inning against Western Carolina right-hander Matt Benedict, who got his first start after compiling a 0.00 ERA in three relief appearances that covered four innings. Back to the bullpen?
You had to know it wasn't Benedict's day the way the game began. Kevin Muno beat out a grounder to third base to open the game; Steven Chatwood hit a grounder to the hole at short for another infield single, then James Meador placed a bunt just past Benedict on the third-base side of the mound for a single. The bases were loaded and the Toreros had not even gotten the ball out of the infield.
That changed when Victor Sanchez hit a ball to right field that just kept carrying — all the way over the fence for a grand slam.
This was going to be a game in which the Toreros used much of their second-tier pitching in order to save the best arms for this weekend's four-game series against San Diego State. Still . . .
Western Carolina rallied for five runs against Matt Hauser and added two more against Scott DeNault, who had been stellar in the early going. DeNault had not allowed a run this season and picked up wins in both ends of a double-header sweep Saturday against Kansas State and Nevada. He walked the first two hitters he faced against the Catamounts.
Matt Thomson was expected to be USD's starter for Thursday's game against SDSU, but the Toreros needed him to get the final four outs against Western Carolina.
Does that mean a Kyle Blair-Stephen Strasburg matchup at Cunningham Stadium? We'll see.
USD was encouraged to see the bats going. The Toreros collected 16 hits in the game, including four by Chatwood and three by Sean Nicol. They also stole eight bases, including three by Nicol.
Notable also was the first appearance by freshman Bryan Haar (Grossmont High), who started at first base. Haar has been slowed by a hamstring injury, which is probably why he was pulled for a pinch runner in the fifth inning.