Counting up

With a pivotal, season-ending series looming just days ahead, the U baseball team took care of business Tuesday evening.

Facing non-conference foe Southern Utah for the fifth and final time this season, the Utes got two things out of the way: First, their 5-2 victory at Franklin Covey Field clinched a regular-season winning record, something the club has accomplished only one other time in the last nine seasons. Second, the U’s star shortstop slugged his way into the record books.

Senior Ryan Khoury, who’s had the hottest bat in the Mountain West since day one this year, became the U’s all-time hits leader with 281. In the bottom of the third, Khoury belted a line-drive single into left field, breaking a tie with Nate Weese for the school record.

“It’s pretty cool because we’ve had a lot of traditionally good hitters here,” Khoury said. “It was kind of relieving just to get it done and kind of move on from it. It’s definitely an amazing honor.”

Khoury, who hit .317 as a junior and .310 the year before that, is hitting at a blistering .443 clip-a full 65 percentage points above his nearest MWC competitor. To make things even more impressive, he’s been playing in the leadoff spot all year, and still leads the club in both RBI (50) and homers (13).

“Ryno’s been awesome. I’m so happy for him for his career. (The record) is a big deal,” U head coach Bill Kinneberg said. “For a straight 50 games, he’s been the best player I’ve seen in the stretch in 25 years of coaching. Every day, he hits the ball hard, he makes plays and he makes us go. Without him, who knows how many games we would have won this year?”

But despite the record-breaking night, there wasn’t too much offense to be found on either side. Tyler Kmetko got Utah (27-23) out of a first-inning deficit with his fourth home run of the year, and the Utes took the lead for good an inning later on Josh Bell’s RBI groundout.

But it was slow going from then on. Thunderbirds starter Jake Noyes gave up just two earned runs in 5.1 innings of work, though another Ute crossed the plate thanks to an error by SUU third baseman Greg Marshall.

Kmetko added another RBI in the seventh, and Bret Baldwin stole home as the Utes built the 5-2 lead.

They got into trouble in the ninth, however, as the Thunderbirds (24-26) put five runners on base. Nevertheless, Brad DeVore got out of the jam with just one run’s worth of damage, and the Utes clinched win No. 27.

“It’s a great honor to be above .500, especially after last year. That was a big thing for this team,” said Khoury, referring to last year’s disappointing 19-36 campaign. “We feel like we could have a lot more wins even than that, but we’ll try and get some this weekend and increase this total.”

Greg Krause (4-0) got the start and went three innings, giving up just one run to earn the victory. He combined with four other relievers to shut down the Southern Utah bats.

“Tuesday games are hard because your focus is mainly on what’s going on in the weekend,” Kinneberg said. “Our relief pitchers did a great job today, kept us there and allowed us to win today.”

But now comes the hard part. With postseason positioning completely up in the air, the Utes close the regular season with a three-game set against archrival BYU. The Cougars have three more losses than Utah overall, but are two games up for third place in the MWC. They have been red-hot of late, winning seven of their last nine conference games, including two of three from second-place San Diego State over the weekend.

“It’s definitely a big series, both for pride in the rivalry and also for the standing in the tournament,” Khoury said. “I’m glad that it’s here. Hopefully we’ll put on a good showing.”

Thanks to senior Ben Saylor, who leads the team with 58 RBI and a .350 batting average, the Cougars have put things together at just the right time. In their Tuesday-afternoon tuneup with UVSC, the Cougs got over the .500 mark with a 10-3 victory, paced by Saylor’s four RBI.

“We just have to play each inning and each game, and do our best and see what comes out,” Kinneberg said. “Naturally, playing BYU any time is big. Now it means something for them, and it means something for us.”

Depending on this weekend’s outcomes, the Utes can finish as high as the third seed or as low as the sixth seed for next week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas.

Kamil Krzaczynski

Senior shortstop Ryan Khoury drills a base hit in the U’s 5-2 win over Southern Utah Tuesday. Earlier in the game, Khoury broke the school’s all-time hits record, collecting No. 281.

Kamil Krzaczynski

Ute sophomore Bret Baldwin slides safely into home in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s meeting with Southern Utah. Beginning Thursday, the Utes host BYU in their final series of the season.