Baseball: Utes Stay Humble, Hungry In Midst Of Best Pac-12 Season So Far


It was the bottom of the seventh inning last Friday evening, and the Utes’ two-series conference winning streak was in jeopardy as the team found itself down 3-0 against a determined Arizona squad.

As junior Max Schuman stepped up to the plate, the outfielder was undaunted by the three-run deficit and parked a ball out to left field for a single. Schuman’s hit triggered a cascade of Utah offense that followed with five more hits and six runs, giving the Utes a 6-3 lead which they kept for the remainder of the game.

Twice more that weekend, Utah trailed the Wildcats heading into the last two innings, and again the Utes rallied behind clutch hitting performances and lockdown pitching. The team earned its third-straight conference series win and its first-ever three-game sweep of a Pac-12 opponent.

“The one thing the coaches have really put into the team this year is to have belief in those late innings. In previous years we have not always responded well to adversity,” Schuman said. “This year, I think the team has a much stronger bond. Our belief in each other and belief in what we’re trying to do is a lot higher, so at no point in that series did I believe we were going to lose.”

Just six days prior to the team’s win against Arizona, Schuman recorded one of Utah’s 23 hits in an eighth inning comeback against Arizona State, which established somewhat of a recurring theme in the next games.

The Utes’ strong suit this season has been their ability to never give up. Often in the Pac-12, the game is decided by a single stroke of the bat. As a result of their recent play the Utes are tied for first in the conference and are at No. 30 in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll.

Nestled in between the thrilling three-game sweep and upcoming competition against USC, Utah played its second non-conference duel with Utah Valley on Tuesday night. Contrary to the improvements shown in their last outing, the nationally-ranked Utes fell flat against their in-state foe, unable to recreate the spark that has been the key to their success.

“We really expended our energy the last weekend against Arizona in those three hard-fought ball games, emotional ball games, and we all saw that last night [against UVU],” said Utah head coach Bill Kinneberg. “We were a little bit tired and didn’t play very well. Now our number one concern is getting our energy back and getting our guys mentally ready to play again.”

Despite the disappointing loss to the Wolverines, the Utes have put that game behind them and are focused on regaining their momentum in conference play and extending the team’s Pac-12 streak.

“Even though you have three great wins against the University of Arizona, you can’t get too high or too low,” Schuman said. “It was a tough loss last night, but now everybody is going to be concerned with the USC series, and we know what we have to do.”

Utah has finished last place in the conference every season since joining the Pac-12, but things are looking up. Utah’s 7-2 record in conference play has already tied the program’s highest number of wins in the Pac-12 and in addition to being tied with No.11 California for first place, the Utes are three games ahead of No. 7 Oregon State.

“It set us up really nicely moving along, but SC is another tough matchup, I don’t think there’s ever a down week in the Pac,” Schuman said. “It supplies the team with a lot of confidence, but we’re going to have to go out and not be satisfied with what we’ve done and be hungry for this weekend.”

Kinneberg agrees the team shouldn’t be content with this prior success and hopes his guys are not placing a premium on rankings or records.

“My goal is to play well and get better every game,” Kinneberg said. “We can’t worry about the standings at this point, we can’t worry about wins. We just have to take care of business and get better and learn from each game.”

While the team is focusing on week-to-week improvement and playing good baseball regardless of wins and losses, the Utes likely have to win just nine of their 21 remaining conference games to be mathematically guaranteed a top-six finish — ending the team’s five-year postseason drought. Although games with Cal, USC, Oregon State and UCLA loom,things may continue to fall into place for this upstart Utah team.

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