— Jerry Briggs (@JerryBriggs) March 19, 2023
UTSA junior Ulises Quiroga remained undefeated by working 6 and 1/3 innings to earn the victory in the first game Sunday, setting up a doubleheader sweep of the FAU Owls.
By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
Pitching, hitting and playing defense aren’t the only things that that aid in the winning cause in baseball.
Sometimes, just being alert can be crucial to team success.
UTSA coach Pat Hallmark cited catcher Sammy Diaz for picking up on a subtle rules infraction by the opposing team, helping the Roadrunners complete a Conference USA doubleheader sweep against the Florida Atlantic University Owls, 7-2 and 5-3, on Sunday afternoon at Roadrunner Field.
As a result, the Roadrunners won all three games against the Owls in their C-USA opening series, extending their winning streak to 10 games, the second-longest in school history.
How did Diaz’ awareness aid the UTSA cause? Well, it’s a bit complicated. But, during Game 1 Sunday morning, he noticed that a few FAU hitters came to the plate with a bat that didn’t meet regulations.
“There’s bat testing in NCAA baseball now,” UTSA coach Pat Hallmark explained. “Every bat has to pass a test on Thursday and have a new sticker, a present-year sticker, and Sammy noticed in Game 1 that they had a bat that didn’t have an orange sticker on it.”
As soon as the Roadrunners became aware of it, they employed a strategy, to call attention to the infraction only when the Owls used a bat without an orange sticker to score a run.
It happened in the top of the first inning in Game 2. With a runner on base via a walk, UTSA pitcher Ryan Beaird threw a fastball that FAU offensive star Nolan Schanuel smashed over the left field wall for an apparent two-run homer.
“At no point in the first game did that bat do any damage (to us),” Hallmark said. “They used the bat again in the second game, and that was the bat he hit the home run with.”
That’s precisely when the issue blew up on the Owls. As Schanuel was rounding the bases, UTSA’s second-game catcher Josh Killeen picked up the bat to bring it to everyone’s attention, and a discussion among umpires ensued.
Then, with Schanuel already seated in the dugout and the scoreboard showing FAU with a 2-0 lead, one of the umpires in the conference at home plate looked up and motioned with his fist, giving the “out” signal.
Two runs, ultimately, were erased from the scorebook.
“I saw J.K. pick up the bat, and I didn’t know what was going on,” recalled UTSA relief pitcher Daniel Shafer, who was in the bullpen in left field at the time. “I kind of assumed it was an illegal bat or something was up with it. Then I saw him called out and I just said, ‘OK. I’ll take it.’
“That’s a great hitter over there, Schanuel. He puts good swings on the ball.”
Does he ever. Schanuel leads Conference USA with a .441 batting average. He’s also got eight home runs.
FAU coaches and players objected to the ruling on what would have been his ninth jack of the season, but the discussion didn’t last too long after the home plate umpire issued a warning to the bench.
“I think they were showing them some stickers that looked like last year’s stickers,” Hallmark said. “They’re not orange anymore. So, that’s what happened.”
The first C-USA series of the season for UTSA started on Friday with the Roadrunners beating the Owls 8-2 on a cold and blustery night. By Saturday, the weather worsened, with rain washing out what had been scheduled as an afternoon game.
Because of the rainout, the teams played two seven-inning games Sunday, with the first starting at 9:30 a.m. By the time the doubleheader was complete, the Roadrunners were answering questions about a C-USA series sweep and a 10-game win streak.
“Ten wins in a row is great, but it’s still a long season,” said Shafer, who closed out both ends in the doubleheader. “It’s still really early. I mean, we’ve got a lot to work on. In all phases of the game. It’s great, but a lot of season is left.”
Nevertheless, it helps the Roadrunners immensely to forge such a solid start in conference play, going 3-0 against a team that came in with its own five-game win streak.
Offensively, UTSA pounded out 14 hits in Friday’s opener, including four of them for extra bases. On Sunday, there were fewer balls hit into the gaps, and there were only 16 UTSA hits in the two games combined.
But there was quite a bit more pop in the balls they did hit, with four going for home runs, including three of them in the second game — one each by Leyton Barry, Matt King and Isaiah Walker.
On the pitching side, UTSA was impressive all weekend, as usual. The Owls, hitting .292 as a team entering the series, scored only seven runs on 19 hits in the three games. In the two played on Sunday, Roadrunners’ pitching scattered 12 hits.
With such a deep reservoir of talent on the mound, Roadrunners coaches had the luxury in the second game Sunday to bring in ace reliever Simon Miller in an early high-leverage situation. In the top of the third, with UTSA leading 2-0, FAU had runners at first and second with one out.
In came Miller, who got Schanuel on a ground ball force play for the first out, before he retired the side against cleanup hitter Jackson Ross. The move allowed UTSA to get through the meat of the Owls’ batting order for the second straight time without harm.
“We’re deep,” Hallmark said. “People don’t realize, guys like Ruger (Riojas) and Fischer (Kingsbery) who are throwing a bullpen (session) right now, allow us go to Simon so early in the game. (Pitching) Simon that early in the game is a little odd, to most people.”
In the move to Miller, Hallmark elected to take out Daniel Garza, one of his best bullpen arms.
“But with two guys on, and one out, and the best hitter in the country coming up to bat, to me, the game is on the line, even though it’s only the third inning …
“It could be the moment of truth, and Simon is our best pitcher … and the only way you do that is to have a deep pitching staff.”
Miller, the winning pitcher in Game 2 after working 2 and 2/3 innings, has responded in key situations all season.
The junior righthander from Canton has made nine appearances and has fashioned a 5-0 record with an 0.38 earned run average. His five victories lead the C-USA.
Hallmark is also high on Shafer, who has made nine appearances and notched three saves, with a 2.70 ERA.
“He wants the ball,” the coach said. “Shafer’s mad when I put Simon in, because he wants to go out there. So, today, it worked out. He got to go out there when he wanted.
“We’re lucky to have as many as what we call ‘Junk Yard Dogs’ on that pitching staff. They want the ball, and they want it in the leverage innings.”
Florida Atlantic 12-9, 0-3
UTSA 18-3, 3-0
UTSA at UT-Rio Grande Valley, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.
UTSA at Rice, Friday, 3 p.m.
UTSA at Rice, Saturday, 2 p.m.
UTSA at Rice, Sunday, 1 p.m.
UTSA’s winning streak started on March 4, with an 11-5 victory over Utah.
UTSA beat Utah twice to close out a home series against the Utes and then won a mid-week game at Texas State. UTSA returned home to win three straight against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. From there, they traveled to Nacogdoches to beat Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday. After taking three straight from Florida Atlantic, the Roadrunners’ streak is 10.
Unofficially, based on a quick review of the UTSA baseball record book, the longest streak in program history appears to be 12 games.
It was a streak put together in the 1994 season under coach Jimmy Shankle. That year, UTSA was in only its third year of baseball. Regardless, Shankle’s Roadrunners went on to win a school record 39 games and advanced to the NCAA Central Regional at Austin.
UTSA has had three other eight-game streaks since then — in 2006, 2008 and 2010 — all under coach Sherman Corbett.
The Roadrunners won six straight twice last season under Hallmark.
Quiroga’s big day
Junior Ulises Quiroga pitched 6 and a third innings to earn the victory in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, striking out nine batters while allowing two runs on five hits.
He gave up a hit and a walk in the seventh and was lifted with one out and runners at first and second. Shafer entered and walked the first man he faced, before Schanuel hit a sacrifice fly to bring in the second run of the game for the Owls. Shafer fanned Ross for the third out to end the game.
After the game, Quiroga said UTSA players aren’t dwelling on the winning streak, calling Sunday “just another day at the ballpark. Worried about the next one.”
Quiroga (4-0, 3.62 on the season) said he felt good about the way he was throwing the ball. “Command was there, and then the offense just opened up,” he said. “That helped me out big time, for sure.”
What was working best for him? “I was able to throw the breaker in there when I needed it.”
Quiroga always has been a fastball-oriented pitcher. It’s his best pitch. But in some respects, the junior from Baytown has altered his style this season, ditching the slider he used last year and replacing it with a curve.
“It’s a spike curve ball,” he said. “Fingers on top and throw it like a fastball.”
UTSA's Isaiah Walker goes air born with a forearm salute to his teammates after hitting a home run Sunday. Please see my story on the Roadrunners' doubleheader sweep of the FAU Owls. https://t.co/hyCDEtJ4sq pic.twitter.com/HGfuhDX8wk
— Jerry Briggs (@JerryBriggs) March 20, 2023