Lost Vegas: Baseball swept in Sin City

The U baseball team had a chance to play spoiler over the weekend, but UNLV had too much firepower.

The Rebels (30-26, 23-7 MWC) made a clean sweep of their final regular-season series against Utah, closing the three-game set out with a 13-6 blowout win on Senior Day at Earl Wilson Stadium.

With the sweep, the Utes (18-34, 10-20 MWC) are reeling as they head into this week’s Mountain West Conference tournament, having lost 10 of their last 11 regular-season games.

“We played hard and we played well at times,” U head coach Bill Kinnberg said. “But we didn’t capitalize on things that we could have had.”

The Utes, who have struggled for the last three weeks since their four-game winning streak at the end of April, had an opportunity to spoil the Rebels’ season, as UNLV came into the weekend just one game ahead of BYU for the MWC title.

In each of the first two games of the series, the Utes looked like they might take advantage of that chance.

In the series opener on Thursday, the Utes got off to an early lead and had the Rebels in a 4-4 deadlock as late as the sixth inning. But Utah’s pitchers couldn’t keep the Rebel bats at bay for much longer, and it all unraveled. UNLV left fielder Matt Fry broke the tie with a two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning-his second homer of the game-and the Rebels tacked on four more runs over the last two innings to pull away for a 10-4 victory.

“UNLV’s relief pitching got better as the games went along, and ours got worse,” Kinneberg said. “That was the difference between our two teams. We don’t have the depth [in the pitching staff] to get stronger as the game goes along. That’s why they’re the top seed in the conference.”

Friday’s ballgame was even more difficult for Utah to swallow. Leading 6-4 in the sixth inning, the Utes once again let one get away, as the Rebels scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a one-run lead.

While Utah tied it back up at seven apiece, a solo home run by Ryan Bird gave UNLV the lead for good and the Rebels went on to win, 9-7.

That victory, coupled with BYU’s loss to San Diego State, clinched the regular-season conference title for the Rebels.

Though UNLV had nothing to play for in the final game of the series Saturday, the team went out on a strong note anyway, and once again, it came at the expense of a late-game breakdown by the Utes.

In what became a growing trend over the weekend, the Rebels erased a sixth-inning deficit to pull away. The Utes led 3-2 heading into the bottom of the sixth, and then the Rebels-the MWC’s top-hitting team in conference play-put on a show.

The Rebels erupted for 10 runs in the sixth inning alone, and did so by playing small-ball. They opened the inning with five consecutive singles and got their first 11 hitters on base. UNLV had nine hits in the inning-seven singles and a pair of doubles-as they opened up a big lead en route to the 13-6 victory.

Third baseman Mike Cruz led the Rebels offensively, going 2-for-5 with three RBI.

“They have a very good offense,” Kinneberg said. “That’s a very offensive park and the wind was blowing out.”

Utah’s loss came despite a strong performance from starting pitcher Chase Christensen, who yielded just one run over four innings of work before giving way to the Ute bullpen.

“Some of our pitchers did very well this weekend,” Kinneberg said. “But our relief pitching just did not hold up.”

The Utes will host the conference tournament, which begins this Wednesday at Franklin Covey Field. The No. 5 seed Utes will take on the No. 4 New Mexico Lobos (25-30, 15-15 MWC) in the first round at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

“We’re going to be at home, and we don’t feel like we’re outmatched,” Kinneberg said. “We feel that we can do some damage in the tournament.”

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