ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – In the final home game of his career, and knowing his team had a shot at a share of its third straight Mountain West regular-season title, John Pustay wasn’t about to let a bruised knee keep him out of the lineup. The third-year senior went 3-for-4 with a single, double, triple and three RBIs to help the Lobos (37-18-1, 20-1) secure a share of the championship by virtue of a 5-4 win over Air Force Saturday afternoon at Lobo Field.
“John Pustay put us on his back offensively,” UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said. “He carried us.”
Pustay was forced to leave Friday’s game early after awkwardly stepping on first base in the eighth inning, but he battled through the pain on Senior Day.
“What a day, that’s for sure,” he said. “It was a great win. We obviously needed it. I’ve been here three years, and I’m glad I’m able to get my third ring.”
Pustay’s big day at the plate supported a tremendous start by sophomore Drew Bridges, who returned to the rotation just a few weeks ago after missing about seven weeks with arm fatigue. He kept the Falcons (20-33, 10-20) hitless through 5.2 innings before finally allowing a bloop single with a man on third. That would be the only hit and run he allowed in 6.0 innings of work as he struck out three and walked two.
“I just came out knowing I’d have to compete,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of strikeouts, but I knew my defense would play well behind me. I’ve had to battle all year, with being injured and all that, so I just focused on the fundamentals. I wanted to go out there and win every pitch.”
Unlike the previous two games against the Falcons, the Lobos jumped out to an early lead, scoring twice in the bottom of the first. Sam Haggerty led off with a seven-pitch walk. A throwing error on a grounder by Aaron Siple put two men in scoring position for Chase Harris. He drove in his 60th run of the season with a grounder to short, and Pustay followed with a double down the left-field line to score Siple and give the Lobos a 2-0 lead.
Pustay helped the Lobos add to the lead in the sixth. Siple walked with two outs and advanced to third on a single by Harris. Pustay then lined a shot through the left side to increase the lead to 3-0.
Bridges, meanwhile, was cruising. He didn’t allow a base runner until there were two outs in the third, and was phenomenal all afternoon as he threw 43 of his 76 pitches for strikes to move to 4-1 on the year.
“He stepped up big time,” Pustay said. “He did a great job keeping them off balance and not letting them get a feel for him all game. We were able to get a couple runs and get a lead for him. It was a great team win.”
The idea of it being a team win was echoed throughout the Lobos’ clubhouse after the game, but Birmingham spoke loudest.
“The great thing about this team is they did it with so many things going wrong,” he said. “Chase Harris finished the game with a big (cut) in his hand. His hand was just done. John Pustay bruised his knee yesterday, and a normal human being probably wouldn’t have played. But John came to me and said, ‘I’m playing.’ Jake Cole had a sore arm today and he still said he’s getting it done. Victor Sanchez had a sore elbow and he still got it done. That’s what this team is: fight, scratch and claw. It was a great team win.”
UNM’s other runs came when Alex Real scored on a wild pitch in the sixth, and Pustay drove in Haggerty with a triple in the seventh, which turned out to be the game-winning run.
The Falcons added a run in the seventh off Cole, and one in both the eighth and ninth against Sanchez. It was the first time all season Sanchez allowed more than one earned run in an outing. It was definitely a tense final inning for the Lobos’ closer.
A double got the inning started for Air Force, and a grounder to first moved him to third with one out. A walk put men on the corners and a single past a diving Andre Vigil at third made the score 5-4 with men on first and second and one out. Seth Kline, Air Force’s leading power threat, launched a 1-0 pitch to the deepest part of the park, the 413-sign in center field. Siple was able to track it down for the second out, but it advanced the potential tying run to third. Sanchez, though, battled back and got a swinging strikeout on a 2-2 pitch to end the game.
The Lobos are one of just five teams in the nation to claim at least a share of the conference title in each of the last three seasons. Louisville, Bryant, Delaware State, and Sam Houston State are the others. Florida State has won its division in the ACC each of the last three seasons, but Miami had a better overall conference record in the other division.
It’s the fourth straight championship season for the Lobos, who won the Mountain West Tournament title in 2011. And speaking of the Mountain West Tournament, UNM will be the No. 2 seed next week in Las Vegas after UNLV defeated Nevada 4-2 to share the regular-season title with the Lobos. UNM will play its first game at 4 p.m. MT next Thursday, but the Lobos have a number of things they want to accomplish before then. First on the list: get healthy.
“We still need to fix a lot of things,” Pustay said. “We’re still doing a lot of things wrong and that won’t win us many games in the tournament. We’re fighting to get to a regional and we have to play well next week. We have a lot of work to do in the next two days, but we really need to get healthy. Especially me.”
Pustay, Cole, Sanchez and Harris aren’t the only ones dinged up. The Lobos are still without starting shortstop Jared Holley and starting left fielder Danny Collier. Both are getting closer to playing and the extra couple days should help them. Real was hit by a pitch in the sixth and has the usual nicks and bruises of playing catcher.
“This team is worn out physically and mentally,” Birmingham said. “It’s a young team, we had finals this week and we have a lot of injuries. What we need is about 12 of us need to go to the hospital and just kind of hang out for two days. We don’t need practice. We need to get into a hospital bad and heal up.”
All of the Lobos’ Mountain West Tournament games will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM and will also be streamed at GoLobos.com by the Mountain West Network.
Notes: Haggerty set a new MW record for assists in conference games, finishing the year with 106 … Sanchez earned his 10th save of the season and is now one shy of tying the school record set by Ed Bartholomew back in 1985 … Vigil finished 2-for-3 and was the only other Lobo with multiple hits.