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
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.
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