bmello@woonsocketcall.com

NORWICH, Conn. – If it wasn’t broke, Bryant senior lefty Steve Theetge certainly wasn’t going to fix it.

After throwing seven scoreless innings against Sacred Heart just a week ago, the Bulldog said going into Thursday’s NEC Tournament opener against the No. 4 Pioneers that he was going in with the same gameplan until he was forced to change his approach.

Nine dominant innings and 99 efficient pitches later, the Pioneers still haven’t solved Theetge. Bryant’s all-time winningest pitcher delivered the finest performance of his career, as he allowed just three hits and struck out nine batters while not walking one in the No. 1 Bulldogs’ 4-0 winners’ bracket semifinal victory at Dodd Stadium.

“This start felt very similar, but I felt like I had better command of my pitches then the last start,” Theetge said after recording his 32nd career victory and his ninth this season. “I think I threw about the same amount of pitches in two less innings, that has to do with not walking batters. The conditions were ideal for me. It was cloudy and 65 degrees out – perfect.”

“He was ahead of all the hitters and had impeccable command of four pitches and he pitched to both sides of the plate and was caught [by Sam Owens] really well,” Bryant coach Steve Owens said. “They were trying to get his pitch count up so his stuff diminishes, but he was just pounding the strike zone.”

Thursday, Theetge faced the minimum number of batters through the first five innings, and he didn’t allow a runner into scoring position until the sixth inning when Justin Jordan moved to second on a bunt single by Alex Perry. Theetge stranded both runners by inducing a fly out to right off the bat of Steven Thibault.

Theetge set down nine of the final 10 batters he faced. The only batter who did reach, Justin Levito, did so on a throwing error by third baseman Jake Gustin Levito, however, turned toward second and ran into the first-base umpire on his way back to the base, which allowed Cumberland’s Chris Wright to tag him out.

“You know what to expect every time he goes out and pitches, he throws well every time he goes out,” Sam Owens said. “Catching him is easy because I’ve worked with him all year; he hits his spots. Every week feels the same catching him because he always hits his spots.”

The elder Owens said the start might be the reason Theetge gets his name called at some point late in the MLB Draft next month.

“He’s locked in right now,” Owens said. “He’s doing what he has to do. What he did is incredible. He’s the best pitcher in the conference and I think today he got himself drafted.”

Dodd Stadium is not conducive to power hitting, so the high-octane Bulldogs had to find different wants to scratch across runs against Sacred Heart starter John Cerrentani. The righty didn’t allow a hit through the first three innings, but redshirt sophomore Ryan Ward (2-for-4) led off the fourth inning with a single.

Nick Angelini followed with a bunt single before Jimmy Titus grounded into a double play. Wright provided the only offense Theetge needed when the first baseman lined a single up the middle to score Ward.

Bryant scored twice in the fifth inning. First Gaby Cruz ripped a double down the left-field line to plate Owens and then reliever Matt Aufiero uncorked a wild pitch on his first toss of the game to score Cruz to make it 3-0.

The Bulldogs advanced through the winner’s bracket to the Northeast finals, where Central Connecticut State needed to beat them twice in two days to swipe the NCAA automatic bid away.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that is exactly what happened. After beating Wagner on Saturday, CCSU made it two wins in one day by beating Bryant, 3-1.

Even with those two wins, CCSU needed to come back on Sunday and beat No. 1 Bryant again. In yet another low-scoring affair, CCSU ended Bryant’s season 3-2.

The Bulldogs had a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning – an advantage they earned on a Sam Owens single that plated Wright.

A solo shot in the seventh by CCSU tied the game, and they took the lead in th eighth on a double. The Blue Devils will face Arkansas in the Fayetteville Regional.

Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello

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