A clean slate: Baseball hopes MWC Tourney provides better results than regular season

The U baseball team has one last shot to redeem its season in this week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament. The Utes will get the opportunity to do so on the comfort of their home turf at Franklin Covey Field.

Utah hosts this year’s tourney, which begins Wednesday morning and runs through the championship game on Saturday, May 28. The Utes, the No. 5 seed in the tournament, will face off against the No. 4 New Mexico Lobos in the first round Wednesday at 3 p.m.

“[The Lobos] are in the same boat we are,” U head coach Bill Kinneberg said. “They’re trying to advance and extend their season. Whoever wins this tournament moves on, so it’s a chance for some of these teams to redeem themselves.”

Heading into the tournament, the Utes and Lobos are heading in opposite directions. Utah (18-34, 10-20 MWC) lost 10 of its final 11 games of the regular season, while New Mexico (25-30, 15-15 MWC) has gotten hot at just the right time, winning six of its last eight conference games to finish the conference season at the .500 mark.

The Utes dropped a three-game set to UNLV over the weekend, but head coach Bill Kinneberg took the weekend to get his team-in particular the pitching staff-in top shape for the tournament.

Starters Matt Crockett and Chase Christensen went just four innings apiece in their respective starts over the weekend.

As for Wednesday’s match-up, the Utes will send junior hurler Josh Cooper, who made a name for himself last time he faced the Lobos, to the mound. Cooper defeated New Mexico in a strong showing on Apr. 29. In just his second start of the season, Cooper tossed seven innings of five-hit ball, allowing just one earned run and striking out eight to lead the Utes to a 5-2 win.

“That was when we decided to put him in the starting rotation,” Kinneberg said. “He pitched extremely well. That was a good match-up for him. They only had one left-handed hitter, and he’s really tough on right-handed hitters.”

The victory was part of the Utes’ three-game sweep of the Lobos in Albuquerque. In that series, the Utes also got a strong performance from Matt Crwwockett in an 8-4 victory, and outlasted the Lobos in a 20-13 slugfest to close out the sweep.

Coincidentally, the Utes didn’t fare too well when they faced the Lobos in Salt Lake City. Earlier in April, the Lobos swept a three-game series from Utah, holding the Ute offense to just seven total runs in three games.

Cooper (3-1, 4.08 in 30 appearances, five starts) pitched the first game of the Utes’ series with UNLV over the weekend, but will be plenty rested for round one of the tournament.

“Cooper threw about 95 pitches on Thursday [against UNLV], so he’ll be on six days rest,” Kinneberg said. “He should be fully ready to go on Wednesday.”

The right-handed junior will face off against New Mexico senior Karsten Gaarder (3-7, 6.48) on Wednesday.

The Utes have struggled lately, losing nine of their last 10 MWC contests, including a pair to last-place Air Force. But the slate is wiped clean for this week’s tourney, and the team feels confident it can reverse its recent slide.

“All the work of the past 30 [conference] games doesn’t really matter,” Kinneberg said. “We’ve got to look at the bigger picture.

Whoever wins this tournament moves on to the Regionals, and that’s what we all want.”

Should Cooper and the Utes top New Mexico Wednesday afternoon, they would move on to face either No. 1 UNLV or No. 2 BYU in the second round. For either match-up, Matt Crockett (4-9, 6.78) and southpaw Jason Price (4-7, 6.98) will be well rested and ready to go.

“Our starting pitching has to be good and carry us deep to give us a chance to win games,” Kinneberg said. “But for that to happen, our offense has to capitalize on every opportunity they have to score.”

If Utah loses its first-round meeting, the team will play a consolation game Wednesday night against the loser of the San Diego State/Air Force game.

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