Friday's season opener featured some memorable Tiger debuts for the new-look Fort Hays State baseball team.
Starting pitcher Zach Berg put himself in position to earn the win with five solid innings, and reliever Jacob Ensz protected a one-run lead with four scoreless innings to help the Tigers take a 4-3 win over MSU Denver on Friday at Larks Park.
Berg gave up a two-run homer in the fifth that pulled the Roadrunners within a run but bounced back with two strikeouts to get through the inning. Ensz, a left hander out of Barton Community College, struck out the side in the sixth and continued to keep the RoadRunners in check.
"Boy, he was good," FHSU coach Jerod Goodale said of Ensz. "And I thought Zach Berg was really good for us, throwing up three zeros to start the game, and then finishing and getting through the fifth. He was at his pitch count and it was probably the last batter he was going to face. We were debating; we had Ensz ready for the left hander, and you've got to tip your hat to Berg, he found a way to get through five and get the win. And then Ensz with the save, it was awesome. It was a great team win."
Berg, a right-handed junior out of Western Nebraska Community College, gave up three runs on five hits and struck out six. Ensz finished with five strikeouts and allowed three hits.
Trailing by a run in the ninth, the RoadRunners opened the frame with a single and put a runner in scoring position with a sacrifice bunt, but back-to-back flyouts ended the game.
Goodale, in his second year as FHSU head coach, said it was an encouraging sign for the Tigers to protect a one-run lead down the stretch.
"It gives you something to draw on the rest of the year, being able to hold on to a one-run lead in the last four innings of the game," Goodale said.
Garrett Stephens, a senior catcher who transferred to FHSU from Southeast Missouri State, homered in his first at-bat for the Tigers, sending one to right center to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning. MSU Denver knotted it up in the top of the fourth with a run on a double from Spencer Gendreau.
The Tigers regained control in the bottom of the fourth after four straight singles from Corbin Truslow, Stephens, Tyler Olson and Jared Maneth, who brought in two runs with a hit to center. Olsen then came around to score after Jaxson Webb grounded into a double play.
"I thought we were opportunistic obviously in the fourth, even with the double play, I thought getting that fourth run in was big," Goodale said.
MSU Denver answered with a two-run homer by Cody Schultz in the fifth, but were kept at bay by Ensz, who never allowed a runner past second.
Stephens went 2 for 4 at the plate with two runs scored and an RBI. He also threw out two runners attempting to steal bases.
"He's been really good for us all. I wish we had him more than one year," Goodale said. "He's really taken the reins with the pitching staff; he called every pitch right there. I thought he did a great job of calling the game and taking control of the game.
"And then offensively, he's got a lot of confidence at the plate right now."
Both teams finished with eight hits.
"I think offensively both teams were kind of settling in a little bit," Goodale said. "There's some early jitters, you could tell, in some of our guys. But I thought we put some good swings on it and had some competitive at-bats."
The Tigers have 28 new players on the roster this season, looking for a turnaround year after going 3-40 last year.
"There was a lot of good things today," Goodale said. "Obviously winning the first one is a good feeling. I know the guys really wanted it, everyone really wanted it. Great team win and a good way to start the year."
The Tigers and RoadRunners were set to play on Saturday doubleheader before closing the series at noon on Sunday.