TOPSHAM — Jimmy Neal had been swinging the hottest bat in the Mt. Blue lineup recently, so coach Dan Stefanilo decided to move him down one spot in the batting order, into the No. 3 hole.
Stefanilo probably didn’t know making that move would not only ignite the Cougars’ offense, but also allow him to rest his ace’s tired and sore arm.
Neal’s two-run home run capped a fast start for the Cougars, who cruised to a 9-3 win over Mt. Ararat at breezy Kingdon Field on Friday.
Mt. Blue jumped out to a 6-0 lead after two innings, allowing Stefanilo to pull Neal from the mound after two innings. Blake Hart and Bradley Jackson combined with five innings of solid relief to keep the Eagles at bay.
“It helped Jimmy out (getting ahead early),” Stefanilo said. “We wanted him to go a little bit deeper, but he’s coming off of three days rest and we put up six, so we thought we’d put some relief in there so he’s ready for Erskine next week.”
While the Cougars played strong defense, a couple of mistakes by the Eagles helped get Mt. Blue rolling. Starter Nick Karkos appeared to escape a two-on, two-out jam in the first when Andrew Pratt hit a high hopper that Karkos leapt high off the mound to snag and throw him out at first. But Brett Milliken, Ararat’s left-handed catcher, was called for interference because his glove touched Pratt’s bat on the swing. Pratt was awarded first base to load them up.
Jackson then hit a fly ball to right-center that center fielder Ryan Greene ran a long way after to get a bead on, but the ball ticked off his glove as he closed in on it, clearing the bases for a three-run double.
The Cougars (4-3) doubled the lead in the second thanks to an RBI infield single by Dylan Vining and Neal’s two-run blast to right two pitches later.
“I was just looking for contact, so I was sitting on the first fastball and it ended up going over the fence,” Neal said. “(Hitting third) is a little bit different, but not really. I had a runner in front of me so it ended up working out really good.”
Neal handed the ball to Hart after yielding a hit and two walks in his two innings. Hart issued a pair of walks to start his outing, and those came back to burn him when Tyler Geyer hit a two-run single to make it 6-2. But he gave up only one unearned run over the next three innings and Jackson worked a scoreless seventh.
“The relief did well. I think most of the guys that scored for them were walked,” Stefanilo said. “For the most part, they threw strikes and that gives us a chance to win.”
The Cougars added an unearned run in the fourth and two more runs in the seventh. Pratt had a pair of singles, including an RBI single in the seventh.