Paul Blanchard earned his 400th career coaching victory Tuesday as the Southwest Minnesota State baseball team swept a non-conference doubleheader against Augustana College at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Mustangs won Game 1 5-2, then defeated the Vikings 4-2 in the second game.
Blanchard, who is in his 16th season as the Mustangs' head coach, now has an all-time record of 400-293-1. He downplayed the milestone after the win, saying "It just means I'm getting old."
SMSU pitching held Augustana (5-6 overall) to a combined 10 hits on the day and allowed just three earned runs.
Aaron Johnson took the hill for the Mustangs (10-5) in Game 1. He gave up a pair of runs (one earned) to the Vikings in the third inning, but shut them down in his five other innings of work.
Down 2-0 through three innings, SMSU tied the game with a pair of runs in the top of the fourth. Jordon Kontz led off the inning with a walk and scored a batter later when Brian Ness hit a double off the first baseman. Ness later scored on a sacrifice fly by Adam Thygesen.
The Mustangs took the lead in the next inning. Chris Eichten was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and moved to second on a sac bunt by Doug Mead. With two outs, Kontz came up and hit an RBI single to give SMSU a 3-2 lead.
SMSU tacked on two runs in the top of the seventh to push the lead to three, and Ben Bartling came in for Johnson in the bottom half of the inning to close the game. Johnson earned the win, improving to 1-1 on the season. He struck out four batters, walked one and allowed four hits in six innings. Bartling struck out a batter and gave up one hit in the final inning.
Blanchard said Tuesday's performance was a special one for Johnson, a 6-foot-6 left-handed pitcher.
"Aaron Johnson pitched an outstanding game for us, his best outing of the year and one of best of his career," Blanchard said. "They had a few left-handed batters at the top of their order and he was able to hold them down and hold their team down.
"He got ahead in the count and threw about 75 pitches in the six innings he was out there. He was very efficient in what he did."
Ness led the team offensively in the win, going 3-for-4 with two doubles, an RBI and a run scored.
SMSU's Bryce Rippentrop followed Johnson's strong outing with one of his own in Game 2. He had a career-high nine strikeouts in five innings, allowing two runs on five hits with two walks.
Blanchard said Rippentrop's high strikeout count was what was the difference for the right-handed junior.
"That was the thing that got him through the game," Blanchard said. "He threw a lot of pitches and had a lot of deep counts, but was able to strike some people out and end rallies.
"He's got good stuff. Good arm strength and good pitches."
Augustana got a run off Rippentrop in the top of the first, but SMSU responded in the bottom of the inning with a pair of unearned runs thanks to a Viking error. Thygesen tied the game with a sacrifice fly and Jon Ellis gave the Mustangs a 2-1 lead after an RBI single.
Augustana tied the game in the third inning, but SMSU answered back again with two runs in the fourth. Steven Kremer had an RBI double to left center to score Tyler Flattum before Kremer crossed the plate two batters later on a sac bunt by Kontz to give SMSU a 4-2 lead.
Alex Alvarez entered the game for Rippentrop in the sixth, throwing two hitless innings to earn his second save of the year. He had one strikeout and one walk in two innings.
Kremer went 2-for-2 from the plate with an RBI and a run scored to pace the Mustang offense.
Augustana lost a talented senior class from last year, including Marshall native Nate Baumann, a four-time All-American outfielder. Eleven games into the season, the Vikings are a game below .500, but Blanchard thinks they're going to be a force as the season goes on.
"They have a lot of new faces," Blanchard said. "They lost six or seven starters from their lineup last year, and I told their coach between games that they're going to be fine at the end of the year once they get some games under their belt.
"I'm glad we got them when we did. I think they spent four days at the Dome and had just played a couple tough games (Monday) night. It's pretty tough to come back from that and be ready to go the next day, so we caught them at the right time."
SMSU has 10 days off before starting Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play March 31 when the Mustangs kick off a four-game series against Upper Iowa in Fayette, Iowa.