By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
After UTSA pitchers Luke Malone and Simon Miller combined to shut down the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 3-2 Friday night at Roadrunner Field, first baseman Sammy Diaz stole the show in postgame interviews, telling tales of his participation last summer in a mountain-top, long-ball competition in a Colorado mining town.
The subject of his trip to the mountains came up after Diaz smashed a titanic solo home run that helped the Roadrunners remain in first place in Conference USA.
Not too long after he hit a fourth-inning blast well over a 405-foot sign perched atop a two-tiered section of fencing in center field, giving UTSA the one-run lead that would stand up for the rest of the game, a Roadrunners’ fan on the concourse said he saw a news story online about the long-ball event held last August in Victor, Colo.
Diaz, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior from Palm Desert, Calif., confirmed after the game that he competed in the event and said he took second place with a ball that he hit 531 feet.
“It was at a community field in an old mining town, a super-old mining town,” Diaz said. “It was really cool. It was really good to go out there. Super nice. It was like, historic, one of the oldest cities in Colorado. They’ve got a bunch of gold mines out there. We were hitting on top of a mountain (in a field). There was no fence. I hit mine over City Hall. I hit mine into downtown.”
Located at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet on the southwest side of Pikes Peak, the town of Victor harkens back to the 1890s Gold Rush era.
Diaz, for one, has a few stories to tell about his trip.
The event got a little bit wild at one point when one of the competitors lost control of the bat, which flipped from the tee area out into an area with some parked cars. Diaz said “it went into the news reporter’s car, right into his window. I don’t know what happened with that, with the insurance or what. But, it made for a good video.”
Like a raucous competition in an old mining town, the fortunes for the UTSA baseball team have been mostly golden all season. The one-run victory over the Hilltoppers in the first game of a three-game C-USA series was no different. Malone pitched seven innings to pick up his third victory of the season against two losses.
Miller, one of the top pitchers in the nation statistically, worked a scoreless eighth and ninth for his fourth save. The Hilltoppers allowed a few opportunities to win the game get away from them, most notably their last at bat when Kirk Liebert led off with a double.
Ricardo Leonett followed with a well-hit ball to center, which allowed Liebert to take third. But with one out and the potential tying run 90 feet away, Miller steadied himself and closed the door on the visiting team from Bowling Green, Ky.
First, Ty Batusich smashed a ball to the left side. UTSA shortstop Matt King made a nifty pickup on a short hop and fired to first. With two down, Andrew Delaney came to the plate but was no match for Miller, who fanned him to clinch the team’s 21st victory of the season.
It’s the most wins for a UTSA team before April 1 since the 1994 squad went 24-9 through the end of March in 1994.
“This definitely feels good,” Miller said. “We’re playing good baseball right now. As long as we continue to play it, we’ll continue to beat teams. So, it’s nice. It’s really nice.”
Coming into Friday’s series opener, UTSA had been off its game, as much as a team with a 21-6 record and a 6-1 mark in conference can be off. On a five-game road trip, the Roadrunners went 2-3, losing at UT Rio Grande Valley, winning two of three at Rice, and then losing at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Tuesday.
There was no panic at practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
“I don’t think it was any different,” Miller said. “We knew what we had to do. That was just to get to work and focus and be better next time out. I think that’s what we did.”
UTSA coach Pat Hallmark said it’s definitely a confidence boost for the team when Malone starts a game and Miller finishes.
“Luke is just so steady,” Hallmark said. “Throws all his pitches for strikes. He’s a wonderful competitor. He checks every box, you know, and then to have Simon. Simon has those tough low breaking pitches that are really hard to get off the ground. It’s hard to get extra bases (off him).”
Hallmark said Liebert’s double into the right-center gap in the ninth was only the second extra-base hit off Miller all season.
“That makes the other team have to get multiple hits,” the coach said. “Generally they need to get three hits to beat him. Simon, his stuff is really elite. He’s ready for pro ball. And Luke, it’s the nature of the mixing of the pitches and the junk-yard dog that he is.”
For the season, Malone has a 3-2 win-loss record with a career-low 2.00 earned run average. In his last four starts, he is 3-0. Miller, along with his four saves, is 6-0 with an 0.59 ERA. The 6-foot-2 junior from Canton has struck out 44 and walked only seven in 30 and 1/3 innings.
Western Kentucky 16-11, 2-5
UTSA 21-6, 6-1
WKU at UTSA, Saturday, 2 p.m.
WKU at UTSA, Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
After receiving the invitation to hit in the long-ball competition from event organizer Earnie Granville, Diaz participated with YouTube stars such as Portland-based Will Taylor of the Baseball Bat Bros, Eric “The King of JUCO” Sim, and Jeremy “The Swingman” Nowak, according to a story published in the Pike’s Peak Courier.
The newspaper reported that competitors were trying to break a Guinness world record.
According to Guinness, Babe Ruth holds the record for longest home run in a Major League game, hitting one 575 feet for the New York Yankees against the Detroit Tigers in July 1921. The longest balls hit in Colorado reportedly traveled 534, 531, 515 and 508 feet. The Pike’s Peak Courier reported that Diaz had the 531-foot shot.
Asked about Diaz’s long ball in Colorado, Miller smiled, joking that he wasn’t sure.
“I’ve heard about it,” Miller said. “I don’t know much about it. You know, in Colorado, the air is thinner, so the ball flies farther. So, we don’t know how true it is.”
To that, Diaz said, “These guys always make fun of me. They say I need the wind to hit home runs. It’s not my fault when I hit ’em when the wind’s blowing out.” The home run Diaz hit against Western Kentucky, based on its trajectory, likely traveled 420 feet or farther. It was Diaz’s third home run of the season and his second in two games.
JB’s video replay
UTSA's Josh Killeen scores from third, sliding head first past the catcher, off a ball hit to shallow center by Antonio Valdez. Roadrunners lead 1-0 after the first inning. https://t.co/hyCDEtJ4sq pic.twitter.com/rjtHf4mSp2
— Jerry Briggs (@JerryBriggs) March 31, 2023
— Jerry Briggs (@JerryBriggs) March 31, 2023
UTSA relief ace Simon Miller strikes out Western Kentucky's Andrew Delaney in the top of the ninth, leaving a runner stranded at third base, to clinch a 3-2 victory Friday night at Roadrunner Field. Story and photo package to come. https://t.co/hyCDEtJ4sq pic.twitter.com/aXsaeN2JpB
— Jerry Briggs (@JerryBriggs) April 1, 2023