Michael Fain pitched on cruise control Saturday afternoon at Peccole Park.
“I felt great out there,” the Nevada Wolf Pack pitcher said. “There actually wasn’t any stressful moments at all. I felt in control the whole time.”
Fain allowed just five hits and no runs while striking out six in 7 2/3 innings as the Wolf Pack blanked the San Diego State Aztecs, 8-0, in front of a sun-drenched crowd of 476. The victory was the Wolf Pack’s fifth in a row and moved them into a third place tie with the Aztecs in the Mountain West. The Pack (18-14 overall and 10-7 in conference) and Aztecs (25-10, 10-7) trail just UNLV (25-10, 13-4) and New Mexico (26-11, 10-4) in the league standings.
“That was our best game of the year, hands down,” smiled Wolf Pack coach Jay Johnson. “It was a complete effort. We hit the ball well, we pitched well and we made the plays on defense.
“I’ve felt all along that we’re getting better and better and now the results are showing that.”
Fain, now 4-1 with a sparkling 2.38 earned run average, set the tone on Saturday. The 6-foot-6 righthander didn’t walk a hitter and allowed just two Aztecs to reach third base while throwing 70 of his 109 pitches for strikes.
“The pitcher is the point guard, he’s the quarterback,“ Johnson said. “He’s the leader out there.”
Mark Nowaczewski got the final four outs to complete the Pack’s first shutout since four pitchers combined to beat Northern Illinois 13-0 on Feb. 23, 2013.
“Everything was working for me, my fastball, curve, changeup,” Fain said. “All our pitchers are doing a good job lately, trying to throw it below the knees and keep the ball down.”
San Diego State came to Reno with the Mountain West’s second-best offense, averaging 6.3 runs a game on a .302 average. The Wolf Pack has won the first two games of this series by holding the Aztecs to just two runs and a .169 (10-for-59) average.
“It’s really hard to explain,” Johnson said. “That is a very good hitting team. Earlier this year they looked like the 1927 Yankees. But we’ve had two very impressive pitching games. It’s all about throwing strikes and throwing low strikes.”
Fain pitched out of mild trouble twice. He got Steve Pallares to ground out with two runners on base to end the fourth inning and he got Ty France to roll into a double play with two runners on base and no outs in the sixth. Catcher Jordan Devencenzi also helped Fain by throwing out Greg Allen trying to steal second in the first inning.
“That play by Jordan was big,” Johnson said. “And then we go out and score five runs.”
Kewby Meyer, Brad Gerig and Trenton Brooks all doubled in the first inning and Bryce Barger and Devencenzi singled as the Wolf Pack rocked Aztecs starter Cody Thompson for five runs.
Thompson, making his first start of the year after 10 relief appearances, entered the game with a 2.42 ERA. He had allowed just 12 hits in 22 1/3 innings and opponents were hitting just .154 against him. The Wolf Pack went 5-for-6 against him and five of the first six hitters crossed the plate. Thompson lasted just one-third of an inning as his ERA ballooned to 4.37.
“Cody Thompson had some unbelievable numbers going into the game,” Johnson said. “But our guys did a great job against him.”
The Wolf Pack pounded out a season-high 16 hits and a season-high six doubles. Barger, who was just 4-for-21 entering the game, had three hits while Meyer, Devencenzi, Gerig, Brooks, Scott Kaplan and Justin Bridgman all had two hits each.
“We made some small adjustments with a few guys a couple weeks ago and it’s really paid off so far,” Johnson said. “We’re swinging the bats real well, swinging at our pitch instead of the pitcher’s pitch. That first inning we hit everything. We hit fastballs, changeups, curveballs, everything. That’s the type of team I want here.”
Fain, who had to endure some long innings on the bench, seem to get energized by the big first inning. He set the Aztecs down in order in both the second and third innings.
“That was huge,” Johnson said. “We go up 5-0 and then he comes out and gets them one, two, three over the next two innings.”
Fain’s biggest challenge was staying sharp while the Pack offense was at the plate.
“There were some long innings and it was a little tough keeping loose,” Fain said. “I had to pace back and forth in the dugout and my back was getting a little stiff.”
The Pack added a pair of runs in the fourth as Devencenzi doubled followed by singles by Gerig, Brooks and Barger. Consecutive singles by Barger, Kaplan and Bridgman gave the Pack an 8-0 lead in the seventh. The eight-run final margin represents the Pack’s biggest victory since the 13-0 win over Northern Illinois 14 months ago.
The Wolf Pack is now 10-2 at home. It’s the Pack’s best start after 12 games at home since the 2010 team also went 10-2. Last year’s team started 10-3 at home (9-3 after 12 games) but lost 11 of its final 14 home games to finish 13-14 at Peccole Park.
“We just seem to be real comfortable here,” Johnson said. “I know I’m real comfortable here.
“I think we play so well here because we started out with eight games on the road and when we got back home we started to focus more on the process rather than the results. I think that helped us. We’ve spent a lot of time here on this field since last September working on the process. That’s the way we practice everyday. And I think that’s been the key, trying to do the things right.”
The Wolf Pack and Aztecs will conclude their three-game series on Sunday (1 p.m.).