PROVO — According to BYU baseball head coach Mike Littlewood, the magic number for Cougar opponents appears to be six or seven. A lead anything smaller than that by BYU's opponents only ensures the Cougars will make a run and at least make things interesting.
Just ask the University of Utah, BYU's latest come-from-behind victim. Trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Kelton Caldwell hit an RBI single and then scored on a bases-loaded walk to tie the game. The eventual game winner for the Cougars came on a double-play attempt that would have ended the inning, but Hayden Nielsen just beat out the throw and put BYU ahead 5-4. The Cougars went on to win by that score.
“It’s stressful. It’s like more gray hair every night," Littlewood said. "We’ve talked about this all year: With our team it doesn’t really matter to our mindset if we get down by a couple of runs as opposed to six or seven. We always plug away and just keep going. We almost expect that big hit and that’s a great place to be mentally as opposed to pressing and hoping for the hit."
The final stanza wasn't without drama. BYU pitcher Matt Milke got two quick outs before surrendering a double and handing out two free passes on walks to load the bases. Milke faced Utah's TJ Bennett and a full count following a conference with Littlewood to talk things out.
The end result — a strikeout — surprised even Milke.
“I thought it was a ball to be honest. He (the umpire) called the same pitch a ball a few batters earlier. I was surprised, kind of. But I was so pumped to get that call,” Milke said.
“We don’t give up. We always fight to the last out and that’s what we’ve been doing all year. Especially against San Francisco, that was an amazing job by our hitters and pitchers. It was just awesome.”
The decision to leave Milke in to face Bennett may have been by default — but Littlewood will take it.
“It felt like the mojo was to leave Milke in,” Littlewood said. “That’s not very scientific, but that’s my gut feeling, just to leave him in. Fortunately it worked out. We’d love to have four or five left-handers out of the pen where we can match up, but Matt’s probably our best matchup guy against left-handers.”
Despite the rivalry, Littlewood was distracted by his team's looming matchup against Saint Mary's and the Cougars' postseason hopes.
“For me, there wasn’t an inning that went by that I didn’t think, 'We’ve gotta win Thursday,'” Littlewood said. “So I know if I’m thinking about that," BYU's players are too.
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"But they did a nice job refocusing in the fifth and sixth inning. You could kind of feel the worm turn as coach (Gary) Pullins would say. In the dugout it was finally like, ‘OK, we have to focus on this game and get this one done or else it’s not going to be a fun couple of days.' Plus you don’t want to go into a big series coming off of a loss.”
BYU will welcome Saint Mary's to Miller Park for a huge three-game set, beginning Thursday.
Jonathan Boldt is a sports writer for the Deseret News covering the Utah Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jboldt24 - www.boldted.com