TAMPA — The University of South Florida Bulls bounced back from a Friday loss to beat the University of Houston Cougars in an emotional 7-4 win. With the loss, the Cougars fall to 28-14 overall and 9-5 in American play, while the Bulls improved to 33-10 and 8-6 in league action. The series is tied and a rubber game is slated for Sunday.
Houston jumped out to a 4-0 lead on USF starter Peter Strzelecki not two innings into the game.
Strzelecki is the Bulls regular Sunday starter, pitching on Saturday. On Tuesday, Strzelecki learned that he had lost his father, Kevin Strzelecki, to a heart attack.
Strzelecki asked USF Head Coach Mark Kingston if he could be moved up a day and pitch on Saturday so he could attend services for his dad on Sunday.
“When a guy tells you he wants to do that, under those circumstances, you say absolutely,” Kingston said. “He was doing the best he could under the circumstances, I think after those two innings he was emotionally spent. I couldn’t have done it”
After 63 pitches, Strzelecki’s night was done. USF Pitching Coach Billy Mohl walked to the mound to make a pitching change, shed a few tears and a hug. What followed was the entire Bulls team meeting Strzelecki at the first base line for more of the same.
The crowd of nearly 1000 stood for an ovation, clearly aware of the circumstances.
Houston head coach Todd Whitting and his team gathered at the dugout rail to do the same.
Ryan Valdes entered the game and got the final out of the inning.
After tossing a scoreless third, the Bulls came to bat in the home half of the inning and the game took on a different feel. Luke Borders had a two-RBI single and Joe Genord launched a two-run home run to left field and the score was tied.
USF added a run in the fourth on a Chris Chatfield single to center and two more in the eighth when Tyler Dietrich delivered a two-RBI single to left, adding much-needed insurance runs to make it 7-4, USF.
Valdes earned his ninth win of the season, working his way through 4 1/3 innings, allowing just one hit and one walk. He struck out six. Joe Cavallaro followed with three perfect innings to earn the save. He struck out five.
Trey Cumbie suffered his first loss of the season for the Cougars, tossing six innings and allowing nine hits and five runs, four earned. He struck out three and walked one.
Sometimes the circumstances surrounding a game make the game itself seem unimportant, but tonight the circumstances and the game worked in tandem to create a special night at the USF Baseball Stadium.
As the Bulls poured onto the field to meet Strzelecki, it was if they were saying to their hurting teammate “don’t worry, we got this,” and thats the way it played out.
“You have to have such strength of character to be on that mound. That is a strong kid that is that is turning into a man. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more impressed with somebody to be able to do that, to fall behind 4-0 and for his team, his boys, his brothers, to win that game for him like that, it’s one of the all-timers for me,” said Kingston afterwards.
I did not know Kevin Strzelecki, but I do know he would be proud of the man his son Peter has become.
Kingston will join Strzelecki for the “Celebration of Life” services tomorrow.