As the postseason dawns, UTSA fans are feeling all the emotions

Caleb Hill. UTSA beat Incarnate Word 13-3 in non-conference baseball on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Roadrunner Field. - Photo by Joe Alexander

Caleb Hill and the second-seeded UTSA Roadrunners take on the No. 7 Charlotte 49ers today on opening day of the American Baseball Championship. The tournament runs through Sunday in Clearwater, Fla. – File photo by Joe Alexander

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

How does everyone feel this morning? I’m talking about fans of the UTSA Roadrunners. Are you feeling anxious? Optimistic? Pessimistic? I’m here in San Antonio today, sorting it all out for you as the American Baseball Championship gets underway in Florida.

With UTSA this season, it’s understandable if you feel a mix of emotions going into Day 1 of the six-day event in Clearwater. As it happens with the nearby Gulf of Mexico, Roadrunners baseball has experienced its ebbs and flows over the past three months. Low and high tides. Cloudy weather, followed by sunny skies.

I am an optimist at heart, and I do think the Roadrunners have a decent shot of making it to Sunday’s championship game. But let’s start with a few reasons to feel sort of anxious or even pessimistic this morning, just to get those emotions out of the way. There aren’t many reasons to wring your hands. But let’s do it anyway, just to deal with reality.

First, the Charlotte 49ers, I suspect, will supply stiff opposition when the Roadrunners take the field this afternoon for the third of today’s four-game lineup. Their coach, Robert Woodard, has guided his team to NCAA tournaments in 2021 and 2023. He knows how to get it done this time of year.

Woodard and the 49ers, in fact, eliminated the Roadrunners from the Conference USA tournament in Houston last season.

Second, the 49ers have two effective left-handed pitchers that I remember seeing at Roadrunner Field on April 5. Cole Reynolds started and AJ Wilson relieved for the 49ers in the first of a three-game series, and it was a tough night for the home fans. Lefties tend to do well against the Roadrunners, and these two presented problems that night. In part because of the pitching of these two guys, and also because a couple of freshmen who jumped up and played well, Charlotte won, 10-5.

In this double-elimination format through the semifinals, you don’t want to lose the opener. You don’t want to get behind the proverbial eight-ball right off the jump. For the Roadrunners to heighten their hopes of making a long and successful run, they’ll need to play well against the 49ers, no matter who is on the mound.

Because, if they lose, it gets really hard. A losers’ bracket game would be played on Wednesday.

Then again, I’m not counting out the Roadrunners even if they lose today. No way. This team has impressed me from opening day with its steady resolve. Part of that resolve stems from players spending so much time around fifth-year Coach Pat Hallmark and assistants Zach Butler and Ryan Aguayo.

But I think most of it is the players and how they approach the game. Take Ulises Quiroga, for instance. Quiroga wasn’t healthy in February as the season opened. But he was determined to have a good season, and he did.

I suspect Quiroga will be on the mound for the Roadrunners today, so that is one good reason to be hopeful. The senior from Baytown had a great year, fashioned an 8-1 record with a 3.59 earned run average and made first-team all conference.

Ideally, for the Roadrunners, they take an early lead and then start to grind down the 49ers. Keep the lead and then turn it over to a bullpen that has been good for most of the season, especially Ruger Riojas, only one of two pitchers in the nation with as many as 10 victories and seven saves.

Riojas, surely, will be a highly motivated player this week. On Monday, the AAC announced its postseason honors. One reliever, East Carolina’s Wyatt Lunsford-Shenkman, made the first team. Riojas was second team.

I’m sure that Lunsford-Shenkman, with a 1.20 earned run average and a .218 batting average against, would have felt the same way if he had been second team. But Riojas had as much to do with his team’s success as any player in the conference this season, and I suspect he will be out to make a point this week.

Quiroga and Riojas, you have to think, will be motivated and determined. Combined with their skill, I believe it gives UTSA a fighting chance to make it to Sunday.

Offensively, the Roadrunners had some issues down the stretch of the regular season. They hit around .255 as a team during a spell of four losses in seven games from late April through early May. But they will come into the tournament with the likes of Mason Lytle, Alexander Olivo and Matt King — all first-team, all conference — all of them hitting well north of .300.

They’ve also got players with first-team ability who didn’t make it. Caleb Hill is one of them. If Hill can get hot, the Roadrunners should be able to do damage and score some runs. Also, keep an eye on Diego Diaz. He’s another X-factor, type player. A member of the conference’s all freshman team.

Like I say, I think the Roadrunners have enough good players to win some games early this week. If they win today, they’ll play either Tulane or Florida Atlantic on Thursday. Based on past results — sweeping to three wins at Tulane earlier this year and beating FAU two of three last weekend — they should be OK in Game 2, as well.

As for their chances beyond that, a lot will depend on pitching depth. As everyone knows, the Roadrunners have had some struggles in that area over the past month or so. Freshman Rob Orloski, their Friday night starter in March, is working his way back into form after enduring a tough month of April.

To win a title this week, they’ll need him, along with Zach Royse and Fischer Kingsbery and Braylon Owens and Daniel Garza and Ryan Beaird and all the others to dial up A-game performances. They’ll need the defense to lock down and make the plays, as well.

Oh, and I almost forgot. They’ll need some intangibles, for sure.

Momentum. Good fortune. More momentum. A few more good breaks … They haven’t had a full week of that type of thing since 2013, when they swept through the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Grand Prairie all the way to an NCAA Regional in Corvallis, Ore.

So, hey, maybe it’s been so long, they are due. Maybe the stars will align and the tide will come in for them this week. I guess we will soon find out.

American Baseball Championship

Tuesday, May 21
Game 1: No. 5 UAB vs. No. 4 Wichita State | 8 a.m. | ESPN+
Game 2: No. 8 Rice vs. No. 1 East Carolina | 47 minutes after Game 1 | ESPN+
Game 3: No. 7 Charlotte vs. No. 2 UTSA | 3 p.m. | ESPN+
Game 4: No. 6 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 3 Tulane | 47 minutes after Game 3 | ESPN+

Wednesday, May 22
Game 5: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2 | noon | ESPN+
Game 6: Loser of Game 3 vs. Loser of Game 4 | 47 minutes after Game 5 | ESPN+

Thursday, May 23
Game 7: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2 | noon| ESPN+
Game 8: Winner of Game 3 vs. Winner of Game 4 | 47 minutes after Game 7 | ESPN+

Friday, May 24
Game 9: Loser of Game 7 vs. Winner of Game 5 | noon | ESPN+
Game 10: Loser of Game 8 vs. Winner of Game 6 | 47 minutes after Game 9 | ESPN+

Saturday, May 25
Game 11: Winner of Game 7 vs. Winner of Game 9 | 8 a.m. | ESPN+
Game 12: Winner of Game 8 vs. Winner of Game 10 | 47 minutes after Game 11 | ESPN+
Game 13: Loser of Game 11 vs. Winner of Game 11 | TBD (if necessary) | ESPN+
Game 14: Loser of Game 12 vs. Winner of Game 12 | TBD (if necessary) | ESPN+

Sunday, May 26
Game 15: Semifinal Winners | 11 a.m. | ESPNEWS

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