ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Early Monday the University of New Mexico baseball team received its first national ranking of the 2014 season. Monday afternoon the Lobos showed why they were so deserving of that ranking.
John Pustay’s double off the second baseman’s glove on a hit and run in the bottom of the eighth scored pinch runner Kirby McGuire all the way from first to break a 3-3 tie and give the No. 24 Lobos (31-11-1) a 4-3 win over No. 21 Texas Tech (32-12). It was the ninth straight win for UNM and it snapped an eight-game winning streak by the Red Raiders
“I hit it up the middle, which I’m not supposed to (on a hit and run),” Pustay said with a laugh, “but it worked out. It was great. This was a big-time win. … Today was a great game to grind it out. It’s big time for us to get nationally ranked now, and this (win) should solidify that.”
Victor Sanchez pitched 2.1 innings of scoreless relief to move to 3-0 on the season and lower his ERA to a microscopic 0.98.
“It’s a little different going more than an inning today,” UNM’s breakout closer said. “I felt good. It’s good to get a win from these guys after they took two from us already this year.”
Texas Tech almost broke the tie in the top of the eighth, but a diving stop by Jered Meek at second saved a run, and the Lobos took the lead in the bottom of the frame.
“Jered Meek had a great game today,” UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said. “I’m proud of him. He saved a run and he drove in our first run. As the years go on he’s going to be an impact player, and I just need to get him to believe that. He’s a very good baseball player.”
Jack Zoellner was at the start of all of UNM’s rallies Monday, but none was bigger than in the eighth. He was hit with an 0-2 pitch to get things going. He was replaced by McGuire as Texas Tech had a meeting at the mound with reliever Cameron Smith (5-1) before Pustay’s at bat.
“We planned (the hit and run) before I got in the box,” Pustay said. “I was going to take a pitch to see if it was one I could drive out and hit over the wall. The problem was (Smith) was throwing me low and inside, so not good pitches for me to hit out of the yard. So we decided that if I didn’t get a good pitch on the first pitch we’d go with the hit and run on the second pitch, and that was the plan.”
Pustay’s bouncing ball glanced off the glove of Texas Tech’s Brant Burtleson, who had lunged to try and keep it in the infield. Unfortunately for him, the ball bounced into no-man’s land in left center. That allowed Pustay to hustle into second and McGuire to score all the way from first as he easily slid in ahead of the throw.
"That was a great read and some fantastic base running by Kirby," Birmingham said. "It was part of a great team win. Jack Zoellner was outstanding in getting on base, especially when down to two strikes and not swinging at bad pitches. The bullpen was phenomenal too. It was a total team effort."
The Red Raiders got on the board first, scoring a pair of runs in the top of the second of Lobo starter A.J. Carman, but the Lobos answered immediately. With one out Zoellner drew a walk, and he advanced to second on a single through the right side by Pustay. Pustay was erased on a fielder’s choice by Andre Vigil, which put men on the corners for Meek.
The sophomore laced the first pitch he saw up the middle for a run-scoring single, and Lane Milligan kept the rally going with a bloop single to center to score Vigil and tie game.
The score remained tied at two runs apiece until the bottom of the sixth. Zoellner again got things started with a leadoff single to left. Pustay then bounced a ball to second that Burleson booted. The ball got into right as Zoellner raced for third. Adam Kirsch fired to third but his throw bounced away, which allowed Zoellner to score an unearned run and give the Lobos a 3-2 lead.
Texas Tech tied the game in the top of the seventh on a double and a pair of singles off relievers Jake Cole and Kevin Baumgartner. That was the only run the bullpen allowed in 5.2 innings of work, though, as UNM’s relievers lowered their collective ERA to 3.09 on the year. UNM is now 27-0 when leading after six and 28-0 when leading after seven. It is a far cry from the days when Birmingham would have to use “duct tape and baling wire” to keep a bullpen together.
“This year everyone (in the bullpen) has come in, stepped up, done their job and gotten big outs,” Sanchez said.
No one has been better than the man they call “Shotgun,” however. Pitching coach Dan Spencer gave Sanchez that nickname after charting some of his bullpen sessions last season and the pitch location was all over the chart. This year has been totally different for the redshirt sophomore out of Volcano Vista HS in Albuquerque. He has allowed just 10 hits and 10 walks in 27.2 innings, good for a .109 batting average against, while striking out 26. He has allowed just two extra-base hits all season, only one of which has come since Feb. 14.
“I really don’t like looking at (my job) as closing,” he said. “That sounds like a lot of pressure to me. I just look at it like three outs and the ballgame is over.”
Next up for the Lobos is a big Mountain West series at UNLV this weekend. UNM is four games up in the loss column on both the Rebels and Nevada, and the Lobos are looking to put a stranglehold on the conference title.
“I know UNLV can’t wait for us to get there,” Birmingham said, “and we can’t wait to get there. We want to play them. We played them early when we were young and dumb. We’re better now. … It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard. We’ve got to play well, and we’ve got to get some breaks and we’ve got to continue this. This isn’t a team that out-talents people. This team out-hustles, out-works and out-executes people. It’s Lobo Baseball, baby: fight, scratch, claw your way to Omaha. That’s our motto every year.”
All three games vs. the Rebels will be broadcast by ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM. Each game will also be streamed live on the Mountain West Network at GoLobos.com.
Notes: UNM is ranked No. 24 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 30 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association … it’s the fifth time in the last six years the Lobos have been nationally ranked … the No. 5 spot in UNM’s lineup – Zoellner and McGuire – combined to score three of the team’s four runs … it was Pustay’s ninth double of the year … eight of the nine starters in UNM’s lineup were hitting .309 or better after the game.