Utah bows out to Lobos in Vegas

By and

A season that started with promise ended with a stumble in the city of sin. After collapsing in the ninth inning of an eventual 9-8 loss to BYU last Wednesday, the U baseball team was eliminated from the MWC Tournament competition just a day later. This time, however, it was the Utes who overcame a big early deficit, only to fall just short as New Mexico moved on.

The Lobos stormed out of the gate, opening up a 6-0 lead through five innings. But the heavy hitters at the top of the Ute lineup answered back. Tyler Kmetko doubled in two runs in the sixth to get Utah on the board, and Bret Baldwin’s two-run homer just moments later cut the deficit to 6-4.

The Utes tied the ballgame at 7-7 an inning later on Ryan Khoury’s two-run triple and Kmetko’s run-scoring single.

But despite the shift in momentum, the U bullpen couldn’t keep the Lobos at bay. New Mexico (30-28) put three more runs on the board in the bottom half of the seventh and a pair of insurance runs in the eighth to escape with a 12-10 victory over the Utes (28-28).

The Utes’ 1-2-3 hitters did all they could in a losing effort, going a combined 9-for-14 with seven RBI.

The Thursday afternoon loss closed the books on the 2006 season and put the finishing touches on a season-ending slump, during which Utah dropped five of its last six games.

Still, the Utes’ success earlier in the season still put them at the .500 mark for just the second time in the last nine seasons, and the 28 wins were a nine-game improvement on last year’s performance.

Season in review

After dropping their first seven contests of the 2005 campaign, the Utes fared somewhat better in 2006’s earlygoing. They won two of their first six games-including a 21-9 drubbing of New Mexico State-and hovered around the .500 mark for most of February and March.

But then the team began to catch fire as the changes and new additions brought by Head Coach Bill Kinneberg during the off-season began to pay off. A six-game winning streak, which included victories over conference foes Air Force, BYU and New Mexico in a “preseason” MWC tourney in San Diego, put the Utes at 16-12. The Utes dropped a 5-0 decision to San Diego State in the first game of the mini-tourney, but rebounded with three straight wins.

That included a pivotal win over arch-rival BYU on April 1. Freshman Corey Shimada’s three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth broke a 3-3 stalemate, leading the Utes to a 6-3 victory in the two rivals’ first meeting of the season.

Utah followed that up with a sweep of UVSC before regular conference play began the following weekend.

The Swingin’ Utes didn’t fare quite as well in the MWC competition as they did in the weeks leading up to it, treading water for most of the way as they stayed in the middle of the pack in the standings. The U dropped its first four conference series before sweeping Air Force in mid-May, as the team’s high-powered offense put 35 runs on the scoreboard in just three games.

But the final weekend wasn’t as successful. Facing the Cougars at Franklin Covey Field, the Utes held leads in all three contests, only to relinquish those leads in each game. Particularly disastrous was the second game of the set, in which Utah held a 4-1 lead before BYU’s eight-run sixth inning paved the way for a 14-7 victory.

The Cougs followed that up with a 6-2 Saturday afternoon victory to finish off the sweep.

“I’m very disappointed with the way we played this weekend,” U head coach Bill Kinneberg said. “I thought we would play a little better than we did.”

The Utes’ troubles with BYU continued in the second round of the MWC Tournament. Utah upset San Diego State in the first round, and held a 7-0 lead against the Cougars a day later, but a shocking five-run ninth spelled the Utes’ doom in a 9-8 loss.

“We haven’t gotten it done. It’s plain and simple. We didn’t close it out,” Kinneberg said. “We had three outs to get and a four-run lead to hold on to, and we didn’t get it done.”

Despite a disappointing loss to the Lobos to close out the season, the Utes’ 2006 showing was not all for naught. Senior shortstop Ryan Khoury was the MWC Player of the Year after hitting a conference-best .432 during the regular season, and he led four Utes on the all-conference squad.