ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Baseball is a crazy game. An inch here or there can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Luckily for the Lobos, they came away with a 2-1 10-inning win over the visiting Air Force Falcons Thursday night at Lobo Field.
After a wild bottom of the ninth that saw UNM tie the game, Aaron Siple’s bases-loaded single over a five-man infield in the bottom of the 10th kept the Lobos (36-17-1, 19-9) alone in the first place in the Mountain West.
“It was definitely strange (seeing five infielders),” Siple said. “I was looking, honestly, to get a way to the outfield any way possible. We were looking at maybe squeezing there, but there were five infielders and they were all playing in. So I took a breath and said to myself, let’s get a ball to the outfield, and I just poked one out there.”
The Lobos wasted a great performance by Josh Walker, who was trying to tie both the UNM and Mountain West record for career wins. The senior from Rio Rancho, N.M., tossed 7.1 innings and allowed a single unearned run. He allowed nine hits, but eight of them were singles, and he walked just one. He struck out four and threw 74 of his 104 pitches for strikes.
“The good thing is Josh Walker pitched his tail off, and the bad thing is he didn’t get a W for it,” head coach Ray Birmingham said. “The young man that had a chance to get a W, should have got a W, and we, collectively, didn’t come through when we needed to (early in the game).”
Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, Siple led off with an infield single to shortstop. Chase Harris, who went 4-for-4, was then hit in the arm on a 1-2 pitch to put men on first and second. That brought John Pustay to the plate.
He smashed a 2-2 pitch off the bag at third. Typically, that would mean good things for UNM, but the ball bounced straight up into the air and it came down in the glove of Air Force’s third baseman, Tyler Saleck, while he was standing on the bag. What had the potential to be a game-ending walk-off double turned into a force out at third.
“None of us have ever seen a play like that before,” Birmingham said. “I’ve seen it hit the bag and skip down the line or into the outfield, but I’ve never seen it pop straight up and wait for the third baseman to step on the bag and catch it at the same time. It was a crazy night.”
The Lobos still had men on first and second with just one out, though, for Alex Real. He hit a 2-2 comebacker right to the pitcher. He turned and quickly threw to second for the force, but the throw to first was just wide and it pulled the Falcon first baseman off the bag. Harris was running all the way and scored standing up to tie the game and force extra innings.
“I had made up my mind before the play (to keep running) in case there was a double-play ball,” Harris said. “The only downside was that it was hit right back to the pitcher, and I didn’t know if I had a chance to get there without having what happened happen. I think if it’s a good throw, Real would’ve been out. I didn’t even look at (third base coach Ken) Jacome. I just get going.”
Harris’ hustle allowed the Lobos to win it in the 10th. The rally began with a great piece of two-strike hitting by Andre Vigil, who lined an 0-2 pitch to center with one out. Jered Meek then worked a five-pitch walk before Sam Haggerty walked on four pitches to load the bases. That led to a pitching change for Air Force and the unique defensive alignment.
After looking at two close strikes, Siple fouled one off to the left side on a very defensive swing. Then he looped the next pitch over the drawn-in infield into right center to score Vigil and set off a wild celebration by the Lobos.
“I was just looking for a ball up because there were only two outfielders,” he said. “Then once I got two strikes I was just battling. That’s all I could’ve done, just poked it out there.”
Siple’s single was UNM’s only hit in five tries with the bases loaded as the Lobos left 14 men on base. But on a night when the Lobo hitters struggled to collect key hits, the Lobo pitchers did a tremendous job.
Freshman Carson Schneider relieved Walker and was perfect in one inning of work. Junior Jake Cole (3-1) pitched the final 1.2 innings and struck out a pair. The only base runner he allowed was a one-out walk in the 10th.
“We pitched very well,” Birmingham said. “We gave up one run and that came because of a defensive mistake. That’s just the way it goes.”
The Falcons’ only run came in the fourth. Following a leadoff double by Seth Kline, Walker induced a bouncer to Haggerty at short. Kline broke for third, but Haggerty’s throw was a bit wide to Vigil and Kline slid in safely. He scored on a sacrifice fly by the next batter to give Air Force a 1-0 lead that it held until the ninth.
Aside from Harris’ four-hit performance, Lane Milligan went 3-for-5 and both Siple and Vigil finished 2-for-5 as UNM out-hit the Falcons 13-9.
With the win UNM remains a game up on UNLV in the Mountain West standings after the Rebels defeated the Nevada Wolf Pack 8-1 in Las Vegas. A win by UNM in either of its next two games against Air Force, or a single loss by UNLV, will guarantee a share of the regular-season title for the third straight year for the Lobos.
UNM and Air Force will meet Friday night at 7 at Lobo Field. Junior Colton Thomson will get the start on the mound for UNM and will be opposed by freshman Griffin Jax, who shut out the Lobos in Colorado Springs, Colo., earlier this season.
“Any game you win at the end can get you a little momentum,” Harris said. “Hopefully we can keep that going tomorrow and Saturday.”
Notes: Haggerty recorded his seventh double of the season … Walker lowered his season ERA to 3.86 and the Lobo pitching staff is now at 4.25 on the season … attendance was 756 … it was UNM’s fourth straight one-run game … they are 3-1 over that stretch.