Matt Gardner loves pitching as if he is flying through the air on a trapeze without the comfort of a safety net below.
“Yeah, I seem to always make things interesting,” the Nevada Wolf Pack closer said Friday afternoon at Peccole Park.
Gardner, protecting a slim one-run lead, walked two hitters with two outs in the ninth inning before getting Christian Mua to bounce out to short to end the game as the Pack beat the Brigham Young Cougars 5-4.
“I like to give the fans their money’s worth,” said Gardner, who now has seven saves this season and 13 in his two seasons as the Pack’s closer.
Gardner started the ninth in great shape, getting Brock Whitney to pop out to short and Austin Hall to fly out to left for the first two outs. The senior right-hander, though, then walked Jaycob Brugman and pinch-hitter Kelton Caldwell, sending the crowd of 434 to the edge of their seats.
“The umpire had a tight strike zone all day so I should have known better,” said Gardner, taking full responsibility for the two walks. “I have to do a better job than that.”
Gardner, who ranks third on the Pack’s all-time saves list behind just Rico Lagattuta (24 saves from 1993-96) and Luke Drakulich (15 from 1996-99), seems to thrive in tense moments.
“It’s fun,” the 6-foot- 190-pounder said. “All my teammates tell me they get excited when I come in to pitch.
‘But ask anyone who saw me pitch in high school. They’ll tell you that I’m a lot calmer out there now than I used to be, that I‘m not the same person. I’m more relaxed now and that just comes with a few more years of maturity.”
Gardner said he will never lull anyone to sleep when he’s on the mound.
“No, not at all,” he said. “You have to have energy when you are out there. That’s when I‘m at my best. Every pitcher needs that.”
It is sometimes, he admits, just a bit too exciting.
“I’ve told him I’d like to see how he’d do when he doesn’t put so many guys on base,” smiled Pack coach Gary Powers.
Powers, whose Wolf Pack are now 14-11 with the series finale against BYU on Saturday at noon, would like Gardner’s saves to be somewhat less exciting.
“He throws far too many pitches than he has to,” Powers said.
Powers, though, keeps Gardner in the closer’s role because he knows what kind of effort he’ll receive.
“He’ll always compete,” Powers said. “Every time.”
The Wolf Pack took a 3-0 lead against the Cougars through four innings. Brooks Klein singled home Kyle Hunt in the first inning for a 1-0 lead. Joe Kohan then doubled home Jay Anderson and Garrett Yrigoyen in the fourth for a 3-0 lead.
Wolf Pack starting pitcher Tyler Wells, though, struggled with his command all day. The freshman lefthander hit a batter in the first, allowed two singles in the second and another single in the third. In the fourth he walked two and hit another before getting out of the jam.
Wells’ afternoon, though, came to a close in the fifth as he allowed four consecutive hits to open the inning. The Cougars, which beat the Pack 4-3 on Thursday to open the series, scored four times in the fifth to take a 4-3 lead.
“He (Wells) just could never find it today,” Powers said.
The Pack, though, took a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the fifth as Ryan Teel tripled home Jamison Rowe and later scored on a ground out to second by Klein. Teel faked a bunt before lining his triple over the head of Brugman in right field.
Relievers Sean Prihar, Barry Timko and Colby Blueberg then carried the game from starter Wells in the fifth to closer Gardner in the ninth with 3.2 scoreless innings combined.
“I was real pleased with the work of those three young pitchers,” said Powers of the freshmen Blueberg and Timko and the sophomore Prihar. “They did a nice job of keeping us in the game.”
Blueberg, though, needed some help from his teammates to preserve the Pack’s 5-4 lead. Left fielder Jay Anderson hauled in a shallow fly ball from Wes Guenther and then nailed Tanner Chauncey at the plate to end the eighth inning.
“All I was thinking was, “I have to hose him, I have to hose him,’” smiled Anderson said. “I figured he was going to take off since it was a one-run game.”
Pack catcher Carlos Escobar made an outstanding play on Anderson’s throw, blocking the plate from Chauncey.
“’Los’ made a great play,” Anderson said. “That’s great teamwork there.”
“They (BYU) did the same thing to us (on Thursday),” Powers said. “They threw one of our guys out at the plate (Anderson in the first inning) and ended up beating us 4-3. And today we did it to them.”