Swept away-and then some

By and

Progress took a step back in San Jose this weekend as the U baseball team fell in four straight games, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the San Jose State Spartans.

After two straight wins to close last weekend’s series against New Mexico State, the more-confident Utes headed back on the road, only to be faced with the same problems that plagued them earlier in the year. Namely, run production.

Last year Utah boasted one of the most explosive offenses in the Mountain West Conference, but runs have been harder to come by during 2007’s earlygoing. In four games over the extended weekend, the Utes managed just 11 runs. And it wasn’t as if the Spartans and Santa Clara Broncos were lighting up scoreboards, either-it was their pitching that held down the Utah bats.

The Utes put just six men on base in the weekend opener, a 5-1 loss. Though a three-run second inning gave San Jose State an early advantage, they were effectively overdoing it-the Utes just weren’t connecting.

It didn’t get much better the following day, as the Utes plated two runners in the opening inning but went into hibernation for the next eight, giving the Spartans ample opportunity to take control. And take control they did. They started off with the long ball-courtesy of sophomore shortstop John Shaffer-and put themselves on top with small ball. Five singles, two wild pitches and a stolen base later, the Spartans had put six runs on the board en route to a 9-2 victory.

While the Ute sluggers did little to help the cause, the bullpen-and the pitching staff as a whole-showed signs of vulnerability as well. After the six-run fifth on Saturday, the Utes blew a four-run lead on Sunday-in the eighth inning.

With Brett Bruneel on the hill-taking over for starter Eric King, who gave a sparkling performance, shutting SJSU and allowing just two hits over seven innings of work-the Spartans rallied from their four-run deficit with three runs in the eighth. In the bottom of the ninth, a Chris Balatico double drove in the winning run as San Jose State clinched the sweep.

The Ute bullpen, which was a sore spot in 2006 but which had performed reasonably well over the first two weeks of the new season, was an obvious weakness over the weekend. But likely more important is the inability of the Ute offense to generate much run support. Through nine games this season, the Utes are hitting a sub-par .266 as a team, with a slugging percentage of just .359.

The culmination of all the team’s weekend problems came Monday, as the Utes fell behind, came back when the offense sprung to life in the middle innings, but ultimately fell short, 6-4, thanks to two late runs from Santa Clara.

Now sitting at 2-7, the Utes head to Irvine, Calif. next weekend to take on the UC-Irvine Anteaters.