CARY, N.C. — Facing the prospect of playing as many as five games over a four-day stretch as it navigates through the loser’s bracket of the Division II College World Series, the University of Tampa baseball team needed a shot in the arm from its already thin pitching staff Wednesday.
And Nik Constantakos delivered.
Making only his second start of the year, the junior right-hander threw six standout innings, allowing only an unearned run on two hits while striking out seven, to lift the Spartans to a 5-2 win over Northwest Nazarene at the USA Baseball National Training Center.
The victory helped coach Joe Urso’s defending national champions extend their season and earn a rematch with top-seeded Central Missouri Thursday in the semifinals of the double-elimination tournament.
The Mules beat UT 8-4 in the first meeting on Monday.
“‘Tako’ did an amazing job. He threw a nearly perfect game,” Urso said of Constantakos. “He did everything we needed and more.
“If he didn’t give us a chance by pitching deep into the game, even if we would have gotten the ‘W,’ we would have exhausted our main bullpen arms and we would have been on borrowed time. We’re down to four great teams, and we’re going to need every bit of that bullpen.”
Constantakos, whose first start came in a South Region victory over West Florida, got off to an impressive start by striking out the side in the first.
But while he stayed strong throughout his longest appearance of the year, the transfer from Charleston Southern found himself pitching from behind for most of the muggy evening after rightfielder E.J. Cumbo overran a single by Northwest Nazarene’s Walker Moore, allowing Alex Salsman to score all the way from first.
The hit by Moore was the last one Constantakos would allow. He retired the final 13 hitters he faced.
“I just wanted to go out there and throw strikes and compete,” Constantakos said. “If they hit it, I’ve got some great guys behind me and wasn’t worried.”
Nighthawks pitcher Spencer Schwehr was just as good through the first five innings, keeping UT’s hitters off balance with a variety of offspeed pitchers. It took an error by reliever Max Holtzclaw for the Spartans (22-5) to finally break through and tie the score in the fifth.
One inning later, they rewarded Constantakos for his effort by scoring three times, on doubles by Drew Ehrhard, Luke Glancy and Dan Sullivan, sandwiched around a walk to Jamarcus Lyons and a J.D. Urso sacrifice fly.
“I was very confident,” Constantakos said of his team’s ability to finally get its offense going. “That’s what our team does, come back and hit hard.”
As big of a lift as Constantakos gave the Spartans’ pitching staff, the situation moving forward could have been even better had they not had to rely on ace reliever Jordan Leasure to close out the game.
But when Michael D’Emo walked the Nighthawks’ Ben Johnson with one out in the ninth after the teams traded runs, the coach decided not to take any chances. As it is, Leasure needed only 11 pitches to finish things off, striking out the final two batters.
“He should be fine for a couple of innings (Thursday),” Joe Urso said of his star closer. “We’ll see how he bounces back.”
Division II World Series
University of Tampa vs. Central Missouri, 2 p.m. Thursday
USA Baseball National Training Complex, Cary, N.C.