BRADENTON -- Lefty relievers Craig Thomas and Colton Chupp were the main reasons the Lakewood Ranch baseball team handed new coach Ryan Kennedy his first career victory Friday night.
If they keep firing like they did against Manatee, the sophomores will be the catalysts for many more of Kennedy's wins.
Thomas and Chupp fired five shutout innings, allowing the Mustangs to rally from a 4-2 deficit for a 6-4 victory over the Hurricanes in Manatee's home opener at G.T. Bray park.
Kennedy, who played on Lakewood Ranch's 2003 state championship team, got his first win against Manatee's Dwayne Strong, his coach in American Legion ball.
"It's awesome," Kennedy said after his players handed him the game ball. "Dwayne coached me for years. To be able to get my first win against him is an honor. Manatee, they put up powerhouse teams each year. ... I'm going to take this one in."
Brad Zunica, Justin Greenaway, Garrett Schultz and Joey Ambrosino had two hits apiece for the Mustangs (1-1), who suffered a run-rule loss to Venice in their season opener. Zunica blasted a home run in the top of the seventh inning to give Lakewood Ranch a two-run cushion.
The game belonged to Manatee early, though. The Hurricanes (0-3) capitalized on two Lakewood Ranch errors in a three-run second inning against Zunica, the Mustangs' starter. Daniel Lee and Cord Sandberg drove in runs for the Hurricanes, who owned a 4-2 lead after two innings.
Enter Thomas and Chupp.
Thomas pitched three innings of middle relief for the victory; Chupp claimed a two-inning save. Each pitcher allowed one hit. Thomas struck out four, Chupp three.
Chupp ran into trouble with one out in the seventh inning when Sandberg singled and Daniel Kerwin drew a walk. But Chupp struck out Wesley Woodward and Manny Rodriguez to close out the win.
"We talk about having a family here, and we pick each other up," Kennedy said. "It doesn't go our way sometimes, but the relievers did
a great job as far as battling and doing their job."
Said Thomas, "If we could keep the runs from multipying, we could give our offense a chance."
Lakewood Ranch started the comeback in the fourth inning against Manatee starter Tyler Souris, who settled down after giving up two runs and four hits in the top of the first. Dennis McGinnis reached on a one-out error, and pinch-runner Shane Zipper moved to second on a single by Chupp.
The Hurricanes then botched two chances at double plays, getting no outs in the process.
The second miscue allowed Zipper to score to make it 4-3.
Manatee committed three errors in the inning and six for the game.
"It's all about taking advantage of the mistakes," Kennedy said. "We did a great job as far as putting the ball in play and making things happen."
In the top of the sixth, McGinnis got an infield hit, Thomas reached on an error, and Greenaway singled in the tying run.
A wild pitch brought Thomas in with the go-ahead run, and Lakewood Ranch turned the game over to its relievers.
It was a frustrating loss for the Hurricanes, who scored six early runs against Riverview on Wednesday before suffering an 8-6 loss.
"That's been the way it's been every game this year," Strong said. "It's finding ways to lose instead of finding ways to win."
Lee and Sandberg had two hits apiece to lead the Manatee offense.
Sandberg made the play of the young season to keep Lakewood Ranch from tying the game in the top of the fourth inning.
With runners on first and third and one out, Lakewood Ranch's Cameron Pearcey lifted a check-swing fly ball to middle-deep, right-center field.
Sandberg ranged over from center field, made a running catch, spun and fired a one-hop seed to Kerwin at the plate to cut down Chupp.
"That was a big-time play by a big-time player," Strong said. "We just need other players to step up."