RENO, Nev. – Alex Real’s two-run, two-out single capped a three-run eighth inning as the Lobos rallied to defeat Nevada 6-5 Sunday afternoon to move into sole possession of first place in the Mountain West. UNLV lost to San Diego State 3-2 earlier Sunday and the Lobos now own a one-game lead in the conference standings.
The Lobos (35-17-1, 18-9) also clinched a bye in the Mountain West tournamentwith the win, which was the third straight one-run game between the teams.
Nevada scored twice in the seventh to break a 3-3 tie on a two-out, two-strike single with the bases loaded. The Lobos proved their mettle, though, as they staged a two-out rally in the top of the eighth.
"We knew we weren't out of the fight," Real said. "We knew we had to do it one hitter at a time. We were focused."
Jered Meek got things started with a one-out, seven-pitch walk. A superb defensive play robbed Sam Haggerty of a hit as Meek was forced out at second. Aaron Siple then came through with a bloop single just between the second baseman and right fielder to put men on the corners.
After a pitching change, Chase Harris smacked an RBI double over the third-base bag to cut the deficit to 5-4 and put two men in scoring position. John Pustay was then intentionally walked to load the bases for Real. After taking two pitches to run the count to 1-1, Real hit a high fly ball into foul territory down the left-field line. It fell just out of the reach of three separate Nevada defenders, so UNM’s catcher had new life.
The very next pitch he laced into left center to score both Siple and Harris. It was his team-leading seventh game-winning RBI of the season.
"I had two strikes so I just had to battle," he said. "I had to stay inside the ball. It was a submarine guy so he had a lot of movement. He came inside so I knew I had to punch my hands threw the ball, and I got it to cetnerfield."
Head coach Ray Birmingham was very impressed with Real's approach in that situation.
“His knock was a great piece of hitting,” he said. “The upper classmen really came through today.”
Real, a junior, finished 2-for-5 with three RBIs and his conference-leading 25th double of the season and a stolen base. The two seniors, meanwhile, also had great days at the plate. Pustay led the team with three hits and also scored and drove in a run. Harris finished 2-for-4 with two runs and an RBI.
Victor Sanchez, who recorded the final out in Nevada’s two-run seventh, set down the Wolf Pack in order in both the eighth and ninth innings, and emphatically shut the door with a swinging strikeout to end the game. He is now 4-0 with a 1.06 ERA in 34.0 innings.
“Victor Sanchez had the heart of a lion today,” Birmingham said. “He was automatic. That was just a huge job of pitching.”
Trailing 1-0 in the top of the third, the Lobos took advantage of a couple Nevada miscues to jump out to a two-run lead. Haggerty led off with a single to left center and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from Siple. Harris then placed a perfect bunt for a single that put men on the corners.
Pustay followed with a hard smash to second. The Wolf Pack’s second baseman was able to knock it down, but he had no chance at retiring either Harris or Pustay and it went for an RBI single. Real was next, and he grounded one up the middle. It looked like both Nevada’s shortstop and second baseman might have been able to make a play on the ball, but they both watched it go past them into shallow center.
The ball was hit so slowly that Real was able to race to second with a double. Jack Zoellner then drove home Pustay with a groundout to first to give the Lobos a 3-1 lead.
The Wolf Pack chipped away, though, scoring single runs in both the third and fifth innings to tie the game, before taking the lead in the seventh.
Sanchez combined with starter Drew Bridges and reliever Jake Cole to limit the Wolf Pack to just five hits, but the trio walked seven batters, hit two others and uncorked two wild pitches. Sanchez, though, saved the best for last as he only needed 23 pitches to record seven outs and threw 17 of those pitches for strikes.
The Lobos are now in prime position to capture their third straight regular-season Mountain West title. They host Air Force for three games beginning Thursday at 7 p.m., and they have to like their chances given the success they’ve had against the Falcons under Birmingham. In fact, the Lobos have never lost to Air Force in Albuquerque with Birmingham at the helm. Still, the head coach for UNM is taking nothing for granted.
“We just played three very tight games,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy next weekend either. Air Force is capable of playing very well and doing some damage, and we still haven’t played our best baseball yet.”
UNLV will host Nevada, which now sits three games back of UNM. San Diego State, which is also three games back, travels to Fresno State. The Lobos own the tie breaker over both the Aztecs and Wolf Pack courtesy of their series wins the last two weekends, so even if UNM is swept by Air Force and both Nevada and SDSU sweep their series, UNM will earn a bye in the conference tournament.
"We want to win every game," Real said. "We want to sweep Air Force. We don't want to be co-champions. We're going to have some intensity. (Air Force is) a good team so we'll have to bring our A-game."
Notes: UNM has not lost at home to Air Force since March 22, 2002 … Air Force is 0-12 on the road in conference play this season … the Lobos have never lost a home series to the Falcons … Siple’s sacrifice bunt was his 16th of the season, which ties the school record set by Haggerty last year … Harris’ double was his 11th of the season … Siple stole his seventh base of the year … all three games this weekend will be broadcast by ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM and streamed live at GoLobos.com.