Bullpen-rich UTSA holds off Western Kentucky to clinch a C-USA home series

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

Right now, Pat Hallmark has more aces than a card shark in poker.

Just when you think he’s in trouble in a baseball game, the coach of the UTSA Roadrunners looks down to the bullpen and motions for another pitcher to get loose.

Most of the time, the move serves to frustrate the opposing team.

Hallmark was up to his old tricks again Saturday. His starter didn’t make it through the third inning, so he called on freshman Ruger Riojas.

Riojas, Daniel Shafer and Simon Miller combined for 6 and 1/3 innings of relief on a hot and muggy afternoon, helping the Roadrunners hold off the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 5-4.

As a result, UTSA (22-6, 7-1) won its first two in a three-game home series to maintain its hold on first place in Conference USA.

Western Kentucky (16-12, 2-6) battled hard and held a 2-1 lead through the middle of the fourth inning.

But after UTSA scored four runs in the bottom of the fourth, an outburst highlighted by Josh Killeen’s two-out, two-run single, the Roadrunners never trailed again.

Though the Roadrunners have scored C-USA series victories against FAU, Rice and Western Kentucky, their ride hasn’t been without its bumps.

For instance, coming into the weekend, a once red-hot offense cooled off a bit and UTSA lost three of five overall, all on the road, including non-conference losses at UT-Rio Grande Valley and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

The offense remains in something of a funk, having struck for only four hits in a 3-2 victory Friday night and six more on Saturday.

Thanks to the pitching, though, UTSA has a chance to go for the sweep tomorrow.

“We’re kind of a little displaced with the offense at the moment,” Killeen said. “Hitting comes and goes. It kind of comes in waves. So it’s good to take the series already.”

Riojas (3-0) pitched three innings, yielding single runs in the fourth and in the sixth, to earn the victory.

More importantly to the big picture, he remained undefeated in his first season of college baseball out of Wimberley High School.

“He’s a great pitcher for us,” Killeen said. “We saw it in the fall. He has a really good fastball that kind of takes off out of his hand. Mixes with a pretty good breaker that he hits for strikes.

We like that. And he also can throw his change up pretty well, too. It’s also hard. It’s not a floating changeup. But, he’s got a lot of confidence. We knew that from the start.”

Riojas just looks comfortable on the mound. Even though he entered in the top of the third with bases loaded in a 1-1 game, the 5-foot-11 righthander escaped unscathed by getting a ground ball to end the inning.

“Just wanted to do my job,” he said, “throw strikes and hit my spots as best I could each and every pitch.”

Western Kentucky touched him for four hits as he worked into the sixth inning, including a solo home run by Ty Batusich leading off the fourth.

But he didn’t walk anyone, which has become a trademark. Riojas has walked only five while striking out 22 in 21 innings this season.

His earned run average has increased over his past few outings against Rice and WKU, respectively, but it’s still a more than respectable 3.00 for the season.

“Honestly, I think it’s going really good (for me),” Riojas said, “trusting my stuff, trusting my defense. Just letting my body work as it should … I love it. Just happy to be out there.”

Teammates say Riojas has played quite a bit of baseball in his career, which accounts for his poise in tough situations.

“It’s a lot different than high school,” he said. “I played at a small 4A in the area. There wasn’t as much competition as there is here. Every hitter you face here is good. Staying on top of that I think (is important).”

It also helps that when he gets in trouble, as he did in the sixth when he yielded a two-out single and then hit a batter, he had Shafer to come in behind him.

Though Bret Blomquist greeted Shafer with an RBI double down the line, that was the extent of the damage. With runners at second and third, Andrew Delaney popped up in the infield to end the threat, leaving UTSA with a 5-3 lead going into the late innings.

Shafer retired three straight in the seventh and three of four in the eighth, keeping WKU off the board in each inning.

In the ninth, Shafer was about the close out the game, but a throwing error by first baseman Sammy Diaz on a potential double play ball loaded the bases and kept the door open for the Hilltoppers.

Aidan Gilroy responded with a fly ball that brought in a run for the final 5-4 margin. But with dangerous Drew Reckart coming to the plate, Hallmark didn’t want to take any chances. He called for Miller, who is enjoying one of the best seasons statistically in the nation.

Miller struck out Reckart on three pitches for his fifth save of the season and his second in two days. On the last pitch, WKU’s runs batted in leader was caught looking, as a Miller slider bit down to catch the inside corner.

“Sometimes his slider likes to break hard, and then sometimes it kind of sits,” Killeen said. “It’s hard to hit if you don’t know which slider is coming. That was pretty impressive by him, that last (at bat).”


Western Kentucky 16-12, 2-6
UTSA 22-6, 7-1

Coming up

Western Kentucky at UTSA, Sunday, 12:30 p.m.


With the series finale scheduled Sunday afternoon, the Roadrunners have the best record after 28 games (22-6) in school history, one game ahead of the 1994 team (21-7).

For perspective, Coach Jimmy Shankle’s ’94 team was 12-3 at home and 9-4 on the road in its opening 28. This year, by contrast, Hallmark’s fourth UTSA team has played a home-heavy schedule. UTSA is 17-3 at Roadrunner Field and 5-3 on the road …

Catchers normally don’t bat leadoff, but Josh Killeen isn’t paying attention to that. With Hallmark tweaking the lineup, the senior from Reagan High School is just trying to make hard contact.

He’s hit in the No. 1 hole the past two games. On Friday night, Killeen went one for three and scored a run. On Saturday, he went two for four and drove in two. In the process, he boosted his batting average to .362, which is No. 2 on the team.

“I enjoy the position,” Killeen said. “I think it’s great. I’m just sticking with my approach. Not trying to do anything more, anything less. A lot of people like to think, ‘Oh, you get to see more pitches.’ I just like to see a pitch and hammer it.” …

Simon Miller, in 12 appearances this season, has constructed a 6-0 win-loss record, with an 0.59 ERA. At the start of the week, he led the nation with an 0.64 ERA and was also tied for the national lead with the six victories. He’s had saves in UTSA’s two home games this weekend, boosting his season total to five.

JB’s video replay

Odom strokes the winning hit as UTSA beats Rice 4-3 in 11 innings

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

Freshman Tye Odom delivered an RBI single for the go-ahead run in the top of the 11th, and the UTSA Roadrunners held in the bottom half to beat the Rice Owls 4-3 on the road in the opener of a Conference USA baseball series.

The series will continue with single games Saturday and Sunday at Reckling Park in Houston.

UTSA managed just enough offense to win for the 11th time in 12 games behind the pitching of starter Luke Malone, relief ace Simon Miller and closer Daniel Shafer.

After Malone pitched 5 and 2/3 innings, coming out in the sixth after he was hit by a batted ball, Miller entered and worked masterfully through the next 4 and 2/3, earning the victory and improving his record to 6-0 on the season.

Though Miller yielded the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, UTSA stayed with him, and he pitched into the 11th.

All told, he threw 78 pitches. Miller, the nation’s earned run average leader at 0.38 entering the series, yielded one run on four hits and one walk. He struck out seven.

Trying to close the game, Miller hit Drew Holderbach with a pitch to open the bottom of the 11th.

After Holderbach was erased on a Connor Walsh fielder’s choice, UTSA coach Pat Hallmark took Miller out and replaced him with Shafer, who induced Max Johnson to pop up.

In the final sequence, Shafer earned the save when he fanned Aaron Smigelski to end it.

The game started fast with UTSA’s Antonio Valdez clubbing a two-run homer off Rice starter Parker Smith in the top of the first. Rice responded in the bottom half when Guy Garibay Jr. smashed a two-run homer off Malone.

UTSA took a 3-2 lead in the sixth when Leyton Barry bunted for a single and took second base on a throwing error by Smith. Barry advanced to third on a fly ball and then raced home on a wild pitch.

Undeterred, Rice scratched out a run in the bottom of the ninth against Miller to tie it.

Manny Garza started the uprising with a two-out single. At that point, Johnson entered to pinch run. Smigelski followed with an infield single to the right side, putting runners at first and second. Pinch hitter Paul Smith, a freshman, stroked an RBI single to right to tie the game.


UTSA 19-4, 4-0
Rice 11-11, 3-1

Coming up

UTSA at Rice, Saturday, 2 p.m.
UTSA at Rice, Sunday, 1 p.m.

NCAA tournament snub still haunts UTSA’s Pat Hallmark

Pat Hallmark. UTSA beat Marshall 5-4 on Sunday, May 8, 2022, at Roadrunner Field. - photo by Joe Alexander

Buoyed by a deep and talented pitching staff, the UTSA Roadrunners will open their season at home a week from today against the Tarleton State Texans. – Photo by Joe Alexander

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

A week from today, when the afternoon sun dips below the top of the old oak trees ringing the south and west ends of modest Roadrunner Field, daylight will turn to dusk.

UTSA baseball players will run out to take their positions under the lights.

Given that UTSA’s athletes will be taking the field to start a new season, a wide range of emotions will surge as they prepare to host the Tarleton State Texans in the opener of a three-game series.

One of the most powerful of those emotions for Roadrunners head coach Pat Hallmark will revolve around pride, and the legacy of former players who gave so much of themselves in years past.

Especially the players from last year who have moved on in their respective lives. Jonathan Tapia, Ian Bailey, Chase Keng and Ryan Flores come to mind, in particular.

All of them formed the heart of a team that forged one of the greatest seasons in school history, only to come up agonizingly short of an NCAA tournament bid.

The Roadrunners won 38 games, one off of the school record.

They posted an 11-4 record against ranked opponents, including wins on consecutive days last May on the home field of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles in the Conference USA tournament.

In the C-USA tourney final, the Roadrunners lost by one run to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, who with the 9-8 victory claimed the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.

On the trip home to San Antonio, the Roadrunners still felt good about their chances of playing in a regional.

They felt that their standing in the ratings percentage index — 37th, bolstered by wins over Stanford, Southern Miss and Texas State — would be sufficient to claim an at-large bid into the 64-team, NCAA field.

As everyone knows by now, the record wasn’t good enough, and the Roadrunners were left out.

Nine months later, it’s clear that the snub still bothers Hallmark. Not so much for his own personal pride, but rather what it meant for the departing seniors, especially Tapia, Bailey, Keng and Flores, who each drove in 50-plus runs in the 58-game season.

“When I think about those four, it still chokes me up a little bit,” Hallmark said Thursday afternoon.

All emotions aside, the Roadrunners will get a chance to run it back, starting a week from today.

Gone are the likes of Tapia, Keng, Bailey and Flores. Returning are four players — infielder Leyton Barry, plus pitchers Luke Malone, Daniel Shafer and Simon Miller — who have been named to the preseason, all C-USA team.

Though the offense may not have the same home-run punch as last year, the Roadrunners are expected to score runs, as Hallmark’s teams always do. Maybe not with with the long ball, so much as with a combination of situational finesse, speed, gap hitting and guile.

The defense, truthfully, probably has some questions. But it should be strong up the middle, where it really counts. And the pitching? Well, the pitching is the primary reason that UTSA has been picked for fifth in the C-USA.

“The (preseason) all-conference team consisted of six pitchers, throughout the league, and we had three of them,” Hallmark said. “So that was nice. I haven’t been a part of that since my days (as an assistant) at Rice (University) when we were going to Omaha (for the College World Series).

“So it was really nice to see, and they deserved it.”

An examination of the UTSA roster and statistics package indicates that 13 pitchers on this year’s team have made at least 10 appearances on the mound in their UTSA careers.

Malone, who posted a 9-3 record with a 2.67 earned run average last season, is expected to lead the weekend starting rotation. He has plenty of experience and can pitch as a starter or as an all-purpose, crunch-time reliever.

Notably, he worked nine innings of relief to beat FAU in last year’s tournament opener.

Shafer (3-1, 3.29) and Miller (4-3, 3.25) are strikeout artists who are expected to pitch in high leverage/late-game situations. Both can load up and throw hard, as evidenced by strikeout numbers that are greater than innings pitched a year ago.

Starting pitchers early in the season are expected to include Malone and Ulises Quiroga, plus newcomers Ruger Riojas and Robbie Maldonado.

Riojas, from Wimberley, is a freshman. Maldonado, who transferred in from Prairie View A&M, is the only left-hander in the group.

“Those four are the leading contenders, at least as of now, to be the starters,” said Hallmark, who believes the pitching could be the best he has seen at UTSA.

In the field, defense up the middle is set, with returning veterans at all the key positions. Fleet Shane Sirdashney, in center field. Matt King at shortstop. Barry, a .347 hitter last year, at second base. Josh Killeen and Sammy Diaz at catcher.

Baylor transfer Antonio Valdez is expected to get a look at third base, along with Isaiah Walker. At first, Texas A&M transfer Taylor Smith and returning veteran Garrett Poston, an all C-USA tournament selection last year, are in the mix.

Both Valdez and Smith once played for Hallmark at Incarnate Word.

As for the candidates to play corner outield positions, Hallmark mentioned transfers Caleb Hill (from Temple Junior College) and Dalton Porter (Texas Tech). Also, UTSA has Walker, a flashy defensive specialist, plus freshmen Tye Odom and Garrett Brooks.

Brooks, a redshirt freshman from Smithson Valley High School, has caught Hallmark’s eye as of late.

“He had a good fall, but some of the other transfers were still ahead of him at the end,” Hallmark said. “But, for the last two weeks, he’s been our best hitter.”

As for last year, the subject of the flirtation with the NCAA tournament is still a sore subject, especially for the coach.

In the immediate aftermath of the bracket announcement, the reasons that UTSA failed to earn the bid were blurred a bit by the raw emotions of the moment. Hallmark said he has since learned that it had to do with two factors.

First, several teams pulled off postseason upsets, rising up through mid-level conference tournaments to knock off more highly-ranked opposition, he said. Hallmark said it happened in “five or six” other times in other tournaments, which pushed UTSA down on the list among teams vying for at-large bids.

“The other (reason), it’s a little harder pill to swallow,” Hallmark said.

He said UTSA’s “pre-conference weekend schedule” wasn’t deemed as tough enough.

“That,” Hallmark said, “is a little harder to swallow, because those schedules are set so early.”

For instance, this season, UTSA will host the Saint Mary’s (Calif.) Gaels for six games in February and the Power 5 Utah Utes for three games in early March.

“Both are traditionally pretty solid RPI teams,” Hallmark said. “But, if they have a down year, should you be penalized for that? Anyway, you could go back and forth, but those were the two reasons I heard.”

All UTSA players can do is go back to work, and, as the coach has said, just calm their minds and try to control what they can control.

But try as the might, he often thinks about Tapia and the others.

“Because that was their last year,” Hallmark said. “For those four guys, that was it. To this day, I still get a little emotional thinking about ’em.”