The opportunities he allowed were many, but the runs Tyler Eckberg allowed Thursday night were zero.
His Kansas State club clinging to a 5-3 lead over No. 6 Texas Tech, the reliever escaped the sticky, two-baserunner situation he inherited in the seventh inning by inducing an inning-ending double play.
An inning later, Eckberg allowed a leadoff walk and a single two batters later. He coaxed a flyout out of Orlando Garcia for the second out, and froze designated hitter Michael Gardner with a fastball for the strike three and third out.
In the ninth, Eckberg served up a leadoff double to Cody Farhat, got two straight flyouts and after surrendering a single and walk, threw out Hunter Hargrove on a slow dribbler to secure the 5-3 win and his third save of the season.
“He found a way,” K-State coach Brad Hill said. “Got a little tight, but for a freshman on the mound, I thought he held his composure pretty darn good.”
The 2 1/3-inning, up-and-down outing Eckberg tossed garnered praise from starter Justin Heskett (4-2), who earned the win for K-State (17-16, 2-8 Big 12) and allowed six hits, three earned runs, one walk and fanned one in six innings.
“He’s a real stud,” Heskett said of Eckberg. “He’s going to be good here for three years, maybe four, but I don’t know if that’ll happen. I love when he comes in after me and slams the door. He’s great.”
Heskett’s performance was similar on several levels. The junior benefitted from a slew of slick defensive plays and worked around the six hits he allowed, and Hill took notice.
“Got tight there in the sixth, and he held his composure good,” Hill said. “To pitch through the sixth, I thought, was really important.”
The two runs Heskett surrendered on the mound — he was charged with the third after exiting in the seventh — came in thorny scenarios. The Red Raiders (29-8, 6-4) plated one in the third on a perfectly-executed hit-and-run.
In the sixth, Heskett’s worst frame, he caught too much of the plate against second baseman Michael Davis, who hammered a home run to left center.
In those two innings Heskett faced a combined 11 hitters.
“There’s always spots to improve,” he said, “but I was happy with the outing. Nothing wrong; we beat the No. 6 team in the country.”
On offense, K-State took advantage of Texas Tech miscues. After tacking on a run apiece in the third and fourth innings, the Wildcats scored twice in the fifth on two wild pitches.
Now, winners of just two of their last 12, they’ll take offense any way they can get it.
“Catch a couple breaks, that’s kind of what we’re needing,” Hill said. “Kind of covered up a few other things we didn’t do so well, but like I said, we’ll take the win and go.”
Four of K-State’s 10 hits came courtesy of freshman Will Brennan, who went 4-for-4 Thursday night after being named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week on Monday.
He led off the game with a single in the first, then mashed a double in the third, delivered a single in the sixth and threaded another single in the eighth.
“A freshman going up there and competing,” Hill said. “He does a good job; doesn’t try to do too much. He’s just trying to put the ball in play flat.”
Now with some momentum, K-State will host Texas Tech Friday evening in the second game of the three-game set.
As for whether this was the game his team needed to get back on track, Heskett leaned toward the affirmative.
“We’re trying to turn it around, and maybe that could be the game that does it for us,” he said. “We’re hoping it is, because we have a lot of talent in our locker room. As we’ve shown against this team, and South Carolina, and even against TCU, we can play with anyone in the country.”