Big first inning leads Utes past Thunderbirds

It may not have been pretty, but the U baseball team got done what it needed to Tuesday, defeating Southern Utah 8-3. The win closed out the season series with the Thunderbirds and provided one last tune-up before the Utes hit the road to take on UNLV this weekend.

As U head coach Bill Kinnberg attested after the game, it may be hard this late in the season — with conference play already in full swing — for his team to get motivated to play a non-conference game in the middle of a week.

“It’s Tuesday, it’s kind of a nice day, you’re playing at home — I’d like to see a little bit more out of us. But we got it done,” Kinneberg said.

Maybe that’s why, after a huge first inning, the Utes basically went on autopilot Tuesday, soundly but unspectacularly taking care of business against the Thunderbirds.

The five-run first inning gave the Utes (19-21) control for good. Nate Burnham led off with his fourth homer of the season and John Welsh and Bret Baldwin added RBI singles.

But for the rest of the afternoon, the team didn’t show that same offensive explosiveness, scoring just three more runs the rest of the way. Fortunately for them, that was more than enough to put Southern Utah away.

“I loved it,” Kinneberg said of the first inning, “but I wish we’d sustain it a little bit, maybe put a run or two up in the second and third, keep the momentum going on our side. We’ve done that quite a bit this year. We have to keep that.”

Tuesday’s ballgame was the Utes’ fourth victory in five tries against Southern Utah this season, but it was also the closest meeting between the two since the Thunderbirds (9-37) won a 7-6 decision on March 8 in Cedar City.

It wasn’t as if the Utes played poorly — in fact, every hitter in the Ute lineup registered at least one hit, and the bullpen shut out the Thunderbirds over the last five innings of play.

But with the road trip against the Rebels looming at the end of the week, the Utes were hardly the same motivated group that took two of three from New Mexico this past weekend.

“I didn’t think we played extremely well, but we got it done,” Kinneberg said. “We got a victory on a Tuesday and I’ll take that every time.”

Ute starter Chad Cullers held SUU to one run in two innings of work to earn the victory, evening his record at 4-4, while Lucas Trinnaman led a strong team performance out of the ‘pen. Trinnaman, who began the season as the team’s weekly Friday-afternoon starter, has struggled throughout the season, but tossed a perfect seventh inning.

“We got seven or eight guys some work in terms of the bullpen, (and) Trinnaman had a great inning,” Kinneberg said. “He threw the ball extremely well. Maybe that’s what I’m most happy about.”

Matt Wilson (1-6) took the loss for the Thunderbirds, lasting just two innings and giving up five earned runs.

Kim Peterson

Erich Kemp slides into home plate Tuesday in the Utes’ 8-3 victory over Southern Utah.