Baseball splits pair in Vegas, knocks off Holy Cross to open series

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UC Riverside baseball (6-3) took on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas over this past week, splitting the two-game series with the Runnin’ Rebels. It was a tale of two games in Vegas as an offensive explosion vaulted the Highlanders to victory, 11-9 in the first game on Tuesday, Feb. 28, while the inability to slow down the Rebels’ offense in the ninth inning of the second game doomed them, as they lost 8-7 on Wednesday, March 1. Saturday, March 4 had the Highlanders returning home to host Holy Cross, another high-scoring affair that the Highlanders escaped with another win, 9-8.

The first game in Las Vegas saw the Highlanders pick up the win lead behind the bat of redshirt senior third baseman Michael Farris. Farris finished the game two-of-four, but had three runs scored and six runs batted in (RBI’s) off of two home runs to go along with one walk. The homers were the first of Farris’ career, scored in surprisingly similar fashions.

After a scoreless first inning, sophomore left fielder Yeager Taylor and junior second baseman Cody Sporrer opened the top of the second with a pair of singles for the Highlanders. Farris followed up with a shot over the left field wall on the first pitch he saw for his first home run of the day that put the Highlanders on top 3-0. The Rebels proceeded to chip away at that lead, scoring runs over the next four innings to take a 4-3 advantage.

The sixth inning began much like the second, with Taylor and Sporrer singling up the middle to set up Farris, who this time took two pitches before crushing the third straight over the center field wall to put the Highlanders back ahead. But they weren’t ready to let UNLV — who had still only gotten one out in the inning — off of the hook quite yet.

Redshirt junior shortstop Coby Schultz and senior centerfielder Mark Contreras continued the inning with doubles that scored Schultz, which was followed by a walk to freshman designated hitter Connor Cannon. Redshirt freshman Cade Peters then took the Rebels deep once again to drive in three more runs for the Highlanders, who finished the sixth with seven runs and a 10-4 lead.

Playing at home, the Rebels were not quite out of the game yet. They managed to mitigate some of the damage in the sixth inning with two runs of their own while only allowing the Highlanders to score one run after the sixth inning. After hitting a bump in the seventh and eighth innings, the Rebels started to make their move.

Facing an 11-6 deficit in the ninth, UNLV was still patiently waiting for their spot. They opened the ninth with a leadoff walk. After getting the next Rebel to pop out, sophomore pinch hitter Max Smith made sure to make his coach’s decision worthwhile, hitting a triple to drive in a run. After a walk was issued to sophomore outfielder Kyle Isbel, a strikeout of freshman infielder Bryson Stott left the Highlanders one out away from victory. But the Rebels were not done.

After Isbel stole second, a wild pitch from the Highlanders’ Ryan Lillie put Isbel on third and scored Smith. Isbel was then brought home off of a single from junior catcher Payton Squier to make the score 11-9. Sophomore first baseman Nick Ames would hit a single to put the tying run on, but the Highlanders would pop the next batter out to end the Rebels’ comeback bid.

The second game was a much different story, as the Highlanders were knocked off, 8-7. The victory was a back-and-forth affair whose deciding moment was a UNLV four-run ninth inning off of Lillie, who had allowed only eight hits in 9.2 innings of work prior to the blown save. UCR registered runs in the first two innings to open the game up 2-0, but UNLV would counter with the first of the several offensive outbursts in the game in the fifth inning.

The Rebels opened the fifth with a fly-out to left field that seemed to put the inning on track to be more of the same offensive struggles that plagued them over the first four innings, but a pair of walks issued by the Highlanders gave UNLV life. Despite a flyout to center that left the Rebels with two outs, a double to center by Stott drove in two runs for the Rebels. The scoring didn’t stop there, as Squier followed up with another double that brought Stott home to give the Rebels a 3-2 advantage. A single from Ames then drove in Squier, capping off a four-run fifth for the Rebels, putting them up two.

It was the Highlanders’ turn to put numbers on the board in the seventh. After a double by senior first baseman Aaron Cisneros and a sacrifice bunt by freshman shortstop Daniel Martinez, the Highlander offense was unhinged by a fielding error by Stott that scored Cisneros and gave UCR the opening it needed. Schultz followed up the error with a single down the left side, and Farris then drew a walk which loaded the bases. This prompted a UNLV pitching change, but it was far too late to stop the Highlanders in this inning.

Peters continued the Highlander run with a single through the left side that drove in both Schultz and junior right fielder AJ Sawyer — who reached base as a result of Stott’s error — giving the Highlanders a 5-4 advantage. The hot-hitting Highlanders were not through there, as redshirt junior catcher Tony Gudino hit a single to once again load the bases. A single by Cannon scored two more runs for UCR, giving them a 7-4 lead heading into the bottom half of the seventh.

It seemed as if the Highlanders were going to leave Vegas with a sweep, but a ninth inning to forget grinded those prospects into dust. After not being able to capitalize on two walks in the top of the ninth due to three strikeouts in that same frame, Lillie started the ninth inning clean with a strikeout of junior pinch hitter Austin Anderson. The smooth sailing would soon end with a triple from the next batter: Isbel. Stott followed with a single up the middle to drive Isbel in, and Squier followed that with a single down through the right side that put the tying run on base. The Rebels didn’t need to think about the tie for long though, as Ames would end up clobbering the second pitch he saw out of right field to win the game for the Rebels, 8-7

After returning home, the Highlanders had another back-and-forth, high-scoring affair with the Holy Cross Crusaders, and came away with a 9-8 victory. The Highlanders had three players with two RBI’s each: Peters, Connor and sophomore left fielder Matt Hardy. It seemed as though the Highlanders would easily get passed the winless Crusaders following a four-run second inning lead by Hardy’s two-run homer that put the Highlanders in control of a 5-1 lead heading into the third inning. The Highlanders ran rampant that inning, picking up four hits and three stolen bases on top of Hardy’s dinger. It seemed that the Highlanders had all the momentum on their side, but much of the game was still left to be played. Holy Cross was able to pick up two runs in the next inning to cut the deficit to two, but they could not contain the Highlander offense over the first six innings, allowing four more runs to come in for the Highlanders from the fourth until the sixth inning. But that’s when Holy Cross began to mount their comeback.

After getting a fly-out to leftfield to open the top of the sixth inning the Crusaders were able to put a man on with a single to left field followed by drawing a four pitch walk to put a man in scoring position. While the Highlanders were able to get another fly-out, they could not escape the inning unscathed, as outfielders Josh Hassell and Austin Masel each picked up RBI’s in consecutive at-bats to bring the Highlander lead down to 8-5.

The Highlanders were able to contain the Crusaders in a three batter seventh, but Holy Cross made another run in the eighth. Facing two outs once again, Holy Cross was able to get to Highlander sophomore pitcher Devin Mckesson, who began to fall behind in counts more than one would like.

He walked Hassell on four balls, then allowed a single to Masel on a full count which drove in a run, prompting Highlander head coach Troy Percival to go to his bullpen. However, it would be a throwing error by Schultz that would end up scoring two runs for Holy Cross to make it a one-run game. The Highlanders would pick up a strikeout to end the inning.

After shutting down the Highlanders in the bottom half of the eighth, Holy Cross was looking to finish what they started in the top of the ninth. Coach Percival turned to his closer Lillie, who had blown a save in his previous appearance. Lillie seemed to have shaken that off as he shut the Crusaders down in the ninth, only allowing a baserunner on an error.

The Highlanders will continue their four-game series with Holy Cross into the new week, which concludes Tuesday, March 7 before traveling to Manhattan, Kansas for a three-game series with the Kansas State University Wildcats from Friday, March 10 to Sunday, March 12.

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