University of New Mexico baseball may be in last place in the Mountain West, but they still have a decent shot at catapulting up the standings with the bottom four teams being separated by just one game in the loss column.
New Mexico suffered a loss, picked up a win and played to a tie against the conference's top team, Fresno State, on the road over the weekend and returned home to start an eight-game home stand.
Although the first two games on the docket were scheduled against Grand Canyon University, a non-conference foe, UNM didn't appear to have an easy task on its hands. GCU entered Tuesday's matchup against the Lobos riding a seven-game winning streak — which included sweeps at home and away — sandwiched around a big win in Arizona.
The Antelopes surrendered just a solitary run in their previous three-game series against the Chicago State Cougars, but gave up more than that in the second inning alone as UNM and GCU went toe-to-toe at Santa Ana Star Field.
Grand Canyon got on the board first, using "small ball" to manufacture an early run. Third baseman Tyler Wyatt got aboard and promptly stole second base to get in scoring position. His teammate was able to advance him to third on the next at-bat and Wyatt eventually scored on an RBI ground ball to take a 1-0 advantage.
But the lead was short-lived.
New Mexico rallied for three runs in the home half of the second — nearly notching a home run on the first pitch. Lobo designated hitter Jeff Deimling crushed a double that bounced off the wall in right field and moved to third on a sharply hit singled by the next batter, Hayden Schilling.
With runners on the corners and nobody away, the Lobos evened the score with a Tanner Baker grounder that allowed him to reach on a fielder's choice and score Deimling. The Lopes failed to turn a double play that proved costly as a throwing error led to two more runs crossing home plate in the frame to give UNM a 3-1 lead through two innings of play.
New Mexico continued to tack on runs to the total and watch Grand Canyon make a habit out of stranding runners on base. The 'Lopes left the bases load in the top of the third and left eight men on base through five innings of play.
UNM added a run in the bottom of the third, two more in the fourth and scored another unearned run in the fifth after Grand Canyon allowed an Ediberto Reyes' infield fly ball to drop. Schilling alertly scampered home to give the Lobos a 7-2 bulge after five completed innings.
Up until that point, New Mexico had gotten a solid start from freshman hurler Tristin Lively. The right-hander went four innings into the game and struck out four Antelopes along the way before the ball was handed over to Nico Garza.
Garza got into some trouble in the top of the sixth, issuing a walk to the first two batters of the inning. Jack Murano tried to pitch his way out of the rough spot, but was unable to do so — largely because of two huge errors that resulted in a five-run sixth for Grand Canyon.
All three of the runs Murano gave up were unearned, but the damage evened things up on the scoreboard just the same as the teams entered the seventh inning all knotted up at 7-7.
Lobo righty Blake Walden took the mound in the top of the frame and made quick work of the Antelopes before the stretch — striking out the first two batters he faced and inducing a pop fly to breeze through things on just six pitches.
New Mexico broke the stalemate by sparking a two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh. Justin Watari showed a good eye and used a seven-pitch at bat to place a base hit right up the middle to score Adam Adkins. Later in the inning, Connor Mang singled home his brother, Jared, who was hit by a pitch. That play increased the Lobo lead to 9-7, but the Antelopes made things interesting late in the game.
Grand Canyon used a lead-off double to put pressure on Walden and eventually got one run across with a sacrifice fly to make the score 9-8. But Walden was able to limit the damage to the lone score and put the ball in closer Malachi Emond's capable hand to start the ninth — needing three outs to add another save to his resume.
Emond got some help on defense to kick off the ninth. Adkins got on his horse and chased down a well-hit ball to start the inning. His backhand grab on the run saved what almost certainly would have been extra bases, but the Antelopes got new life thanks to a critical error.
New Mexico caught another break, getting the lead runner out on a Brock Burton ground ball, but the 'Lopes overcame that as Preston Pavlica got a single and Burton hustled to third to put runners on the corners with two out. Pavlica swiped second to set the stage for shortstop Johnny Weaver.
A base hit by Weaver would've likely resulted in Grand Canyon taking the lead, but Emond helped his own cause by enticing the batter with a 1-2 pitch that Weaver could not lay off of. The first base umpire ruled that Weaver did not hold up on his check swing, which resulted in a game-preserving strikeout.
It allowed the Lobos to hang on for the 9-8 victory and give Emond his eighth save on the season. New Mexico improved its record to 20-23-1 overall and will try to duplicate the result again on Wednesday, when the teams square off again at 1 p.m.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and baseball and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler