Five games into the Western Athletic Conference baseball season, the Utes are flexing their muscles. They've beaten two of the league's perennial bullies and are looking for more. Utah? The same team that went 10-32 last year?
In living color.Last week Utah split a pair of doubleheaders with San Diego State. Tuesday on the Ute diamond they overpowered BYU, the perennial problem from the south, beating the Cougars 7-3.
The race may indeed be a race that includes the Utes this year.
"We've played and beaten two of the big boys who were supposedly going to run away with it," said Ute coach Rick Sofield. "I've been saying baloney all year to that."
Ute righthander Craig Sudbury bounced back from a shaky performance last weekend against Northern Colorado to six-hit the Cougars on Tuesday. Using his fastball and slider, Sudbury made the Cougars look oafish and timid until he began to tire slightly in the final two innings. He gave up four of the game's six hits and two runs in those last two innings, but struck out Brad Eagar in the bottom of the ninth to move his record to 4-3.
The win had Ute coach Rick Sofield - never one to need a good excuse to get excited - overjoyed. "We're 3-2 in the WAC and we've played against San Diego State and BYU," said Sofield. "You gotta like our chances."
Sofield began to get interested in his team's chances after the first inning. Sudbury struggled early, allowing two hits and a run in the first. But from then on he put the squeeze on the Cougars, not allowing a hit until the eighth inning.
Much of Sudbury's good fortune was brought about by fine defense. Utah turned three double plays to kill any Cougar plans for a big inning. "It seemed like we'd get one good at-bat and three bad at-bats," said BYU Coach Gary Pullins. "It was like that all day."
The Utes got serious about winning the game when they touched BYU starter Darin Kracl for a run in the third and went ahead in the fourth with another. Kracl became unsettled in the fifth and left the game after Steve Sigloch hammered a three-run homer to key a four-run rally.
The lead spread to 7-1 in the bottom of the sixth when Lance Madsen - whose 2-for-4 day improved his hitting streak to 16 games - homered over the left field fence.
"Same old ridiculous story," said Sofield. "I had to get on my team the other day for being too depressed when Lance goes out."
"Mike Switzer (relief pitcher) threw a slider and Madsen drilled it into the mountain," Pullins said.
Madsen wasn't the only Ute swinging well. Cleanup hitter Rob Beck had two hits, including an RBI single in the fifth. Sigloch and Matt Bradshaw added two hits apiece.
The Cougars appeared stuck at 55 miles per hour, after driving all day Sunday to return home from the Riverside, Calif., tournament. Top hitters Paul Cluff and Randy Wilstead could only manage a hit apiece - though Wilstead's was a screaming solo homer in the top of the ninth. But nobody got more than one hit off Sudbury. Pinch hitter Matt Norman singled in a run in the eighth.
"They got the lead and we pulled the classic amateur hitter bit and swung at bad balls all day," said Pullins. "It was a terrible outing for hits."
The victory moved Utah to 10-16 overall and 3-2 in the WAC - good for second place. New Mexico is in first place at 3-1. BYU, 2-3 in the WAC and 18-10 overall, host Colorado State Friday and Saturday while the Utes take on Wyoming.
Pullins stopped short of blaming the loss on overconfidence. "We have too much respect for the other teams in the leaguue. We were just flat and it was one of those days where the University of Utah definitely outplayed us," he said.