ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. –Josh Walker was brilliant for the University of New Mexico baseball team Sunday, leading the Lobos to a 7-0 shutout of the Missouri St. Bears (5-2) in the first game of UNM's doubleheader.
The second game, which was the final game of the Lobo Invite, saw one of college baseball's rarities: a tie. UNM (4-3-1) and Northern Illinois (0-6-1) were tied at 3-3 after 10 innings when play was halted because, quite frankly, the Huskies had a plane to catch. It was UNM's first game since they drew with Northwestern almost 10 years ago exactly on Feb. 22, 2004.
The story of the day, though, was Walker, who bounced back from a very disappointing outing in his first start of the season. Last Sunday the Preseason All-American gave up nine runs in four innings in a 17-2 loss to the University of San Diego.
"We knew he would bounce back," UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said. "He beat a very good Missouri St. team 7-0. That's really big."
The senior from Rio Rancho, N.M., was masterful against the Bears. He allowed just five hits, four of which were singles, and did not walk a single batter. He struck out three and needed just 95 pitches, 68 for strikes, to get through the game. He kept the ball down throughout the game and recorded 15 groundball outs, nine that came in the sixth inning or later.
"I got the ball down," he said. "Every day is a learning experience. I learned from the last game. The past doesn't matter now that we're in the present. I put my heart and soul with the team and just pitched hard."
Walker held Missouri St. off the base paths until the fourth, when the Bears recorded their first two hits of the game. A single and sacrifice bunt put a runner on second with two outs. Eric Cheray, who hit the cover off the ball in the Lobo Invite, lined a single to Chase Harris in right. The senior came up and fired a perfect strike right to Alex Real at home to nail the runner and end the frame.
Saturday night Missouri St. scored five runs in the sixth on just one hit. Sunday in the fifth the Lobos nearly duplicated that feat, scoring three on only one hit. Jared Holley was hit by a pitch to start the inning, and he advanced to second on a sacrifice by Aaron Siple. Sam Haggerty then grounded a ball right back to the Bear pitcher, Clay Murphy, who made a nice stop.
Holley, who ran on contact, was then caught between second and third. He managed to scamper back to second, though, when Murphy threw to third. That put two men on for Harris, who launched an 0-1 pitch well over the wall in left to give UNM a 3-0 lead.
Missouri St. had a chance to cut into the lead in the seventh, getting a man into scoring position with no outs for the heart of its lineup, but Walker got a strikeout and a pair of groundouts to escape unscathed.
The Lobos then added to their lead in the bottom of the frame. Harris walked to lead off the frame and Alex Real singled him to second. It looked liked they might be stranded as they were on the corners with two outs, but Ryan Padilla smacked a two-run double to right center. Pinch hitter Andre Vigil then knock Padilla home with a single to center.
The Lobos’ final run came in the eighth. Kirby McGuire was hit to lead off the inning. He advanced to second on a wild pitch and to third on a groundout by Haggerty. Harris then drove a ball deep down the line in right that was caught near the warning track. The sacrifice fly allowed McGuire to score with ease.
Harris finished the game 2-for-3 with a walk, two runs, a home run and four RBIs. Padilla and Meek also finished with two hits.
"Chase Harris had a great game and we hit the ball well in game one," Birmingham said."
Northern Illinois jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first off starter Mike Gould, but the Lobos responded with three of their own in the bottom of the frame.
Jered Meek, batting leadoff for the first time this season, smashed a single past NIU’s first baseman to start the inning. He scampered all the way to third on a failed pickoff attempt and then scored on a groundout by Haggerty.
With two outs Real singled to center. Padilla then followed with a triple to the gap in right center. John Pustay then smoked a liner to center to give UNM the lead.
It was short-lived, however, as NIU tied the game in the top of the second.
And that’s where the scoring stopped. There were eight and a half more innings played, but neither team was able to cross home plate again.
"Doubleheaders are hard to sweep," Birmingham said. "We played poorly in the second game. We needed more energy from guys that are better baseball players."
Despite the lack of scoring each team had its chances, starting with UNM in the bottom of the third. With two outs Real was on second and Pustay was on first. Lane Milligan, who was making the first start of his career, grounded a ball up the middle. NIU's shortstop cut it off, but Milligan beat the throw to first. Real, who was running hard the whole way, rounded third and headed for home. A heady play by the Huskies' first baseman prevented UNM from taking the lead as he threw home in time to nab the Lobo catcher.
NIU, meanwhile, left men in scoring position in the sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th innings, but it was the Lobos with the last at bat and the last good scoring chance.
Real led off the inning with a walk. Birmingham, knowing it was his team's last chance to score, sent Matt Reyes in to pinch run for his catcher. Jack Zoellner, who led the state of Arizona in home runs last season as a high school senior, placed a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Reyes to second. The Huskies then intentionally walked Pustay to set up a force play.
Pinch hitter Chris DeVito flew out to left, but it was deep enough to move Reyes to third. That put runners on the corners for Kirby McGuire. The game was supposed to be called at that point as the pre-determined stop time of 4:20 p.m. had passed, but NIU head coach Ed Mathey allowed the Lobos their last batter.
"I thought that was a real classy move," Birmingham said.
On the second pitch Pustay took off for second and danced around a bit, hoping to get in a rundown. The Huskies didn't bite, though, and he moved to second base. On a 3-1 count McGuire hit a slow bouncer to third. As Reyes raced home the NIU third baseman charged, fielded the ball cleanly and threw out McGuire by a step. That ended the inning and the game.
"It was a weird ending to the day," Walker said
On the plus side for the Lobos, their bullpen pitched nine shutout innings and allowed just six hits. Victor Sanchez, Jonathan Cuellar, Carson Schneider, Jake Cole and Taylor duree combined to strike out six over the final nine innings.
Meek, Padilla and Pustay each finished with two hits apiece to lead the Lobos.
UNM finished the Lobo Invite 2-1-1 and allowed just nine runs in four games, with five of those runs coming in one inning against Missouri St. Saturday night.
"Pitching I feel like is doing very well," Birmingham said. "Except for that one game at the University of San Diego, I think we're pitching better than we've ever pitched here."
The Lobos are off until Friday at 6 p.m. when they welcome Northern Colorado to Lobo Field for a four-game series, with a Saturday doubleheader. All four games will be streamed live on www.golobos.com, and ESPN Radio 101.7 The Team will broadcast each game minus the second game of the doubleheader Saturday.
Notes: Walker’s shutout was the first for UNM since Walker shut out Fresno St. on May 10 last season … it was the third complete game of Walker's career ... the UNM pitching staff held the first four hitters in NIU's lineup to a combined 2-for-18 ... the attendance of 1,287 fans was the highest at Lobo Field since it reopened last season.