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Fain, Byler boost Wolf Pack over Air Force

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Everything is coming into focus for Michael Fain.

“Yeah, I can see the signs now,” smiled Fain, who started wearing eyeglasses this season. “Everything is a lot more clear.”

The 6-foot-6 Fain threw 62 of his 96 pitches for strikes Friday afternoon as the Nevada Wolf Pack turned back the Air Force Falcons, 5-1, in front of a crowd of 470 at Peccole Park. Fain struck out four, walked two and allowed just four hits while throwing the first complete game of his young career.

“Last year I knew I needed glasses but I was just going in there for an inning so it wasn’t too bad,” said Fain, who had nine saves in 26 appearances last year as a freshman. “But this year I knew I had to get (glasses).”

Fain has adjusted well to his new role as a starter. The right-hander is now 3-1 this season with an eye-opening 2.25 earned run average over six starts and 36 innings. Last year as a reliever he struggled with a 7.77 ERA, allowing 21 earned runs in 24.1 innings.

“Michael’s emergence as our Friday starter has changed our team,” Pack coach Jay Johnson said. “When you lose a guy like (Braden) Shipley from last year’s team, it leaves a lot of questions about who is going to fill that role as the Friday starter. Michael has stepped right in and has given us a huge lift moving forward.”

Fain sailed through his nine innings and seemingly got stronger as the game wore on, retiring the final 13 Falcon hitters in order. Air Force bunched three of its four hits together in the fifth inning -- singles by Russell Williams, Spencer Draws and Seth Kline -- for its only run.

“I felt real good out there,” Fain said. “My arm felt solid all the way through.”

“The key was that he had all three of his pitches (fastball, curve, changeup) working real well,” Johnson said. “And when his curve and his change are working well it makes his fastball look that much better.”

Fain said he kept it simple against Air Force.

“I threw mainly just fastballs and curveballs because they both were working so well,” he said. “I think I only threw three or four changeups the whole game.”

Air Force came into the game with a team batting average of just .217 and had scored just 13 runs over its last seven games. The Falcons, 4-16 overall and 1-6 in the Mountain West, have now lost 10 games in a row and 13 of their last 14.

“Anytime you win a conference game, it’s big,” said Johnson, whose Wolf Pack is now 10-11, 4-6. “And anytime you beat a Friday pitcher, it’s big. He (Air Force’s Cameron White) is a real good pitcher.”

White, a 6-4 senior, allowed 10 hits and five runs in seven innings. The right-hander, who lost two games to the Wolf Pack last year, walked just one and has now walked just four hitters in 41.2 innings this year and just 13 over 148.2 innings the last two seasons combined.

“I love hitting against a pitcher like that because you know he’s going to throw strikes and you are going to get a good pitch to hit,” Wolf Pack first baseman Austin Byler said.
Byler got a pitch to his liking in the fifth inning and sent it about 420 feet over the right-center field fence for a two-run home run and a 2-1 Wolf Pack lead. It was the fourth home run White has allowed this season.

“It was a changeup belt high right down the middle,” said Byler, who now has three home runs this year. “He had been throwing me changeups all day and made me look bad so I kind of had an idea he’d throw me another one.”

Byler struck out in his first two at-bats, both times with a runner on base and less than two outs.

“I was really happy to see the adjustment Austin made in that at-bat,” Johnson said. “That home run shows his capabilities as a hitter. He had two very poor at-bats before that and he went up there the third time and stayed behind that pitch nicely and hit it a long way. That’s why we call him the Ox. He’s such a strong guy.”

Byler also tripled off White to left field and scored on a single over the shortstop’s head by Kewby Meyer in the seventh. Meyer later scored in the inning on a double by Jordan Devencenzi as the Pack stretched its lead to 5-1. A single by Trenton Brooks and a RBI double by Jeff Nellis on a line drive off the third baseman’s glove had given the Pack a 3-1 lead in the sixth.

Byler’s home run, though, was all the cushion Fain needed.

“It settled our guys down,” Johnson said.

The Pack had no runs on three hits in the first four innings off White. Over White’s final three innings, the Pack banged out five runs on seven hits.

“After that (home run) our guys started squaring more balls up and starting hitting the ball hard,” Byler said.

The Wolf Pack defense also did its part. Byler made a nice play at first on a ground ball for an out in the third inning, Scott Kaplan turned in a standout play at third on a slow roller in the seventh and Meyer made a brilliant running catch in left center for the first out in the ninth.

“I just wanted to go out there and throw as many strikes as I could and make them hit the ball in play,” Fain said. “The guys made some real nice plays behind me. That helped me out a lot.”

The Wolf Pack, thanks mainly to Fain, is now 6-1 on Fridays this season.

“That, to me, is one of the best stats we have,” Johnson said.

“I always want to go out there and get our team off to a good start for the weekend,” Fain said.

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