FILE: Tyler Villaroman readies to take a swing against Portland in a game at Dante Benedetti Diamond on March 17, 2019. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

Mollerus comes up big in relief, Villaroman provides difference

Freshman pitcher Josh Mollerus provides much-needed relief for the USF Dons against Sac State

BENEDETTI DIAMOND — On the underside of Josh Mollerus’s ballcap is scrawled, “No fear, no limits, no esxcuses.”

The San Francisco Dons’ freshman pitcher came into Tuesday’s game against Sacramento State with a 6.75 ERA in 17 appearances, including three starts. With a four-game losing streak marring what had otherwise been a solid start for the Dons, Mollerus got the ball in a crucial spot against the Hornets in the fourth, and answered the bell.

A two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the eighth by Tyler Villaroman may have proved to be the difference, but Mollerus’ 3 2/3 strong innings and Daniel Slominski’s scoreless eighth kept the offense within striking distance for a 3-2 win.

“Previous times when I had gone out there, I didn’t give much thought to what I actually wanted to do,” Mollerus said. “This time I said, ‘Hey, let’s go out there and hit our spots and the stuff will take care of itself.’”

Coming off a ghastly outing in which he allowed six runs over 1 2/3 innings in a Saturday loss at Gonzaga, Mollerus was able to strand a baserunner after relieving Grant Young with one out in the fourth, and aside from letting Keith Torres reach base twice with a double and a walk, he saw little traffic as he kept San Francisco (25-20) within a run.

Getting a solid inning from Slominski was nothing new for the Dons, as the Livermore native has been solid when healthy, but for Mollerus to scatter just two hits and a walk while retiring 11 batters was a massive lift for a pitching staff that had severely lacked depth.

Slominski held down the fort in the top of the eighth, and after Sacramento State’s Stone Churby walked Robert Emery and hit Nick Yovetich, but poor baserunning and execution cost the Dons a pair of outs.

Riki Urata’s sac bunt attempt failed as Emery was retired at third, and though Yovetich was caught stealing, Kyle Knell walked on four pitches to extend the inning. That brought Villaroman up, and he sent reliever Tanner Dalton’s 0-1 offering into the gap in right-center to put his team ahead for the first time since the opening innings of Friday’s loss in Spokane.

The knock also made up for an earlier defensive miscue by Villaroman, as Sacramento State (27-17) took a 2-0 lead in the third on the first of Torres’ two doubles, which Villaroman nearly ran down in the gap, but lost after miscommunication with left fielder Jonathan Allen. Poor defense also gave the Hornets their first run, as a dropped pop-up by shortstop Jack Winkler set up Steven Moretto to bring in a run on a force out. If not for those defensive miscues, Young would have kept the guests off the board entirely.

All that was left from there was for Joey Steele to finish it off, and he earned his ninth save of the year despite some two-out traffic, walking pinch-hitter Nick Iwasa and allowing an 0-2 single to leadoff man Bronson Grubbs to put two on with two out. That brought Torres up, and though he was 3-for-3 plus a walk until that point, Steele retired him on three pitches to end the four-game skid and give the hosts some momentum entering a pivotal weekend series with Pepperdine.

“It’s huge,” Steele said of the depth on the pitching staff. “Going down to the end of the season, we’re going to need everyone.”

Getting more strong innings from the likes of Young and Mollerus would be huge for a team that had been searching for answers at the end of the staff all year. With two of last year’s three main starters gone (Thomas Ponticelli was drafted by the Cleveland Indians and Landen Bourassa had Tommy John surgery), depth pitchers like Alex Pham and Julian Washburn were forced into more prominent roles, leaving head coach Nino Giarratano relying on freshmen like Mollerus.

“No one gives a freshman enough credit for coming in to pitch,” Villaroman said. “Being a position player as a freshman, it was hard enough. Pitching as a freshman, you’re in the center of it all.”

Being in the spotlight hadn’t been easy for Mollerus previously, but with his motto of — no fear, no excuses, no limits — he was ready for the moment and helped the Dons completely change their outlook entering the home stretch of the season.

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