For the last two seasons, Evan Challenger has been the rock of Georgia Southern’s weekend rotation.
The senior lefty endured a rough start to his season, but - following an 11-4 loss to Little Rock (16-27, 7-13 Sun Belt) Friday night - proved that he is still the guy to turn to when his team needs a win.
Challenger put the Eagles (29-15, 12-8) on his shoulders, throwing 117 pitches and giving the bullpen a night off as he tossed a complete game shutout in a 5-0 win over the Trojans Saturday night at J.I. Clements Stadium.
“My main goal was to just put us in a position to win the game and have a chance to win the series,” Challenger said. “Everything felt good, but I didn’t know that I was going to go the whole way. My teammates got a lead and made plays behind me, so they just let me go.”
A night after the Little Rock bats seemed to square up everything thrown at them, Challenger kept things awfully quiet. Trojan batters managed just three hits on the night while Challenger struck out seven and danced around four walks and a hit batter.
The only real jam Challenger faced came in the fourth inning when Riley Pittman and Cameron Knight led off the frame with consecutive singles. A sacrifice bunt put the pair in scoring position with one out, but Challenger coaxed a popup out of Kale Emshoff and struck out Christian Reyes to end the threat.
“We responded well from last night, and that all started with Evan Challenger,” GS coach Rodney Hennon said. “He had what I thought was his best performance of the year. He made big pitches in big spots, our defense came up with some plays behind him and our offense did enough to put up some runs.”
Georgia Southern got the only run it really needed in the third inning. Cal Baker singled off of Little Rock starter Cory Malcom to start the frame and was replaced on first when C.J. Brazil hit into a fielder’s choice. Steven Curry followed with a single, Jordan Wren was hit by a pitch and Mason McWhorter plated Brazil with a sacrifice fly to left.
The Eagles widened the lead in the fourth and needed just five pitches to do so.
Mitchell Golden led off with a single and Logan Baldwin took Malcom’s first offering deep into right for a double to put runners on second and third. Evan McDonald then lined an 0-1 pitch up the middle for a two-run single to make it 3-0.
The Eagles plated runs in the seventh and eighth innings on a Curry groundout and a Tyler Martin single, respectively.
“We were more competitive at the plate tonight,” Hennon said. “We did enough to score some runs. We still ran into a lot of two-strike counts. I’d like to see some of our guys be aggressive and stop taking pitches that get us behind in counts.”
If the Georgia Southern offense is trying to adjust its approach and work out any issues, Challenger made things easy for them Saturday night. The complete game effort was good for his second win of the season and - combined with some solid relief outings and a quality start last weekend - has helped to shave more than an entire run off of his ERA from February and March.
The Eagles now set their sights on winning the series. Chase Cohen will get the call on the mound as Georgia Southern and Little Rock wrap up their three-game series today with first pitch scheduled for 1:30 p.m.