Defense sparks victory as UTSA sweeps No. 23 Charlotte

Returning home from the East Coast a week ago, the UTSA Roadrunners had lost two of three at Florida Atlantic and eight of their last 11 overall.

But after getting back to town, the Roadrunners found something.

They started with a 6-4 victory in 10 innings Tuesday night at Incarnate Word, followed by a 12-8 road win at 12th-ranked TCU on Wednesday. Finally, they completed a five-games-in-six-days stretch with three straight wins at home against the 23rd-ranked Charlotte 49ers.

The Roadrunners capped the sweep of the defending C-USA regular-season champions with an 8-5 victory Sunday afternoon. The game was shortened to seven innings because of time constraints on a travel day for Charlotte.

In the aftermath of an exhausting stretch, UTSA emerged with an 18-10 record, a 5-4 mark in the conference and perhaps a rising level of confidence.

“We played good baseball,” Roadrunners coach Pat Hallmark said. “I actually did not think we played very good on Tuesday (at UIW). But we persevered, and we won. The other four games, we played good. The defense was the key.

“You know, hitting comes and goes, and we’re still young on the mound. So, we’re going to be up and down (with the pitching). Hopefully in a couple of years, we’re much more consistent there.

“But the (pitchers) we’re relying on are young. They’re doing a good job. The key to me this week was the defense. From Wednesday to Sunday, those four games, we really defended very well.”

A play in the top of the fourth on Sunday stood out in Hallmark’s mind.

With UTSA leading 3-0, Charlotte had a runner aboard at first with nobody out when 49ers star Austin Knight roped a pitch from Braden Davis deep into the gap in right center.

Roadrunners’ center fielder Shane Sirdashney sprinted to his left, traveled a long way, and made a running catch.

As it turned out, the play saved at least one run. One out later, Charlotte’s Cam Fisher unloaded by slicing a two-run homer to left.

Davis got out of it with only two runs allowed. In the bottom half, the Roadrunners pushed across a run on a Jonathan Tapia sacrifice fly to make it 4-2.

“Dash is pretty good,” Hallmark said of Sirdashney’s play in the field. “The jump is the key for him. He reads the ball good off the bat. He has those long strides. He made it look pretty easy. But he was running when he caught it. It’s not that easy.

“Just because he didn’t dive doesn’t mean it’s an easy play. He ended up tweaking something, too. We ended up taking him out of the game. Not sure what it was. Groin or (hamstring) or what.”

After the series at Florida Atlantic, the season for the Roadrunners had a chance to go downhill — and fast. But it didn’t. Now, it’s headed on a different trajectory.

“They’re hungry,” Hallmark said. “But, what’s the alternative? I know it seems like a coach answer. But if you don’t come hungry and ready to play, the alternative is not good.

“The guys understand. Guys like Tapia, they’ve been around. Chase Keng. They’ve been around. You don’t have to motivate ’em. I might coach ’em mechanically on something every now and then but there’s no motivational talks with these guys.

“Some of the young guys, they’re learning how to do it. We might coach those guys a little more. But Ian Bailey, Leyton Barry, they’ve been around. The alternative to not being ready is … we don’t even go there.”

The experience factor came into play on the last play of the game. With the bases loaded and two out in the top of the seventh, Knight hit a grounder toward the hole on the left side of the infield.

Tapia, playing third, gloved the ball but lost his footing. Then, somehow, he threw from his knees to second base for a force play. Game over. Sweep completed.

“The ball was hit with a lot of over spin,” Hallmark said. “The little subtleties of the game, with a natural surface field in South Texas, this field’s always hard. So any ball hit with over spin is tricky and nasty.

“Those are the ones you see bounce up on infielders. He over-committed a little. It cost him the footing. But, like you’re saying, the experience allowed him to recover. It was a fantastic play by an experienced player … a terrific play.”

At the end of the week, Tapia’s finger prints were all over the five-game streak. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, the senior from O’Connor had three hits apiece in those victories. That all came before Sunday, when he secured the victory with his glove, and his poise.

“He’s really good,” Hallmark said. “He held us together last year (with his versatility) and he’s doing it again.”

Records

UTSA 18-10, 5-4
Charlotte 17-10, 4-5

Coming up

Wednesday — Stephen F. Austin at UTSA, 6 p.m.
Friday — UTSA at Old Dominion, 5 p.m.
Saturday — UTSA at Old Dominion, 2 p.m.
Sunday — UTSA at Old Dominion, 11 a.m.

Notable

Junior right-hander Daniel Shafer completed the seventh inning to earn his second save in two days. For the week, he was 1-0 with the two saves in three appearances. Since Tuesday, Shafer pitched 4 and 1/3 innings scoreless, allowing only two hits and one walk. He struck out one.

The Roadrunners are 5-0 this season against ranked opponents, including a 6-5, 10-inning home victory against Stanford on Feb. 28, a 12-8 win at TCU last Wednesday and then 13-3, 8-7 and 8-5 victories over Charlotte. All three ranked opponents played in the NCAA tournament last year.

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