PROVO — The BYU and Utah baseball teams wrestled to a historic notation this week. It was good for the Utes and a real letdown for the Cougars.
Both squads are having forgettable seasons. The Utes are 13-32 and the Cougs 19-24 after losing seven in a row and 10 of their last 11, including a 6-3 decision to the Utes on Tuesday at Smith's Ballpark.
When he rounded the bases Tuesday, Chandler Anderson may not have fully understood just how important his third-inning grand slam was for Utah. The Utes took control of the game after that appearance at the plate.
Utah’s win broke a BYU stranglehold on the regular-season series, a domination that dates back to 1998, the last time the Utes had won a regular-season series against the Cougars.
That’s a long time — longer than many of the players on the field Tuesday night have been alive.
“Most of these BYU-Utah games come down to the last batter,” said BYU coach Mike Littlefield, himself a former player in the rivalry.
BYU had the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning. “We hit four to five balls on the screws and gave up too many gifts on the bases,” said Littlefield, whose team outhit Utah 8-4.
I chatted with a friend, history buff Rocky Steele, and the author of "Forgotten Champions: The Story of the 1951 BYU Basketball Team," and he put things into perspective.
Both teams have split the season series several times over the last two decades, but for the purity of the regular-season series, it had been a quite a drought for the Utes.
Before this season, the last time Utah won a regular-season series in baseball over BYU, the late LaVell Edwards was still roaming the sidelines. Bill Clinton was president. John Stockton was tied at the hip with Karl Malone in the NBA Finals. At that time, former Cougars Wally Joyner and Rick Aguilera were playing in the majors.
On BYU’s side, three Cougar coaches helped build that impressive streak: Gary Pullins, Vance Law and Littlefield. Two Utah coaches endured the drought, Tim Esmay and current coach Bill Kinneberg.
The streak spanned connections by these two programs to four conference affiliations, including the WAC, Mountain West and Pac-12/WCC. It spanned one athletic director at Utah, Chris Hill, while BYU saw its programs administrated by Rondo Fehlberg, Val Hale and Tom Holmoe.
During BYU’s domination of the series, the school enjoyed the building of Miller Park, a one-of-a-kind combined baseball/softball facility. That park just enjoyed a major upgrade that includes artificial turf and a heating system that can melt six inches of snow in an hour.
The Utes won this regular-season series 3-1 from the basement of the Pac-12 standings. There is talk of Utah investing in a baseball facility in the future, but this week’s series-clinching game was played in Smith’s Ballpark, home of the Bees.
Bottom line? This season has been a struggle for both teams, and on a beautiful night with a series tie or win on the line, the Utes prevailed at home.
Ultimately, that slammer by Anderson, who grew up in Park City, became historic for his squad and teammates, and that’s worth noting.
The Cougars now head into a three-game league series starting Thursday at San Francisco. The Utes head to a similar league series at Oregon.
Because this rivalry game comes right in the middle of conference play, there is the question of how the teams are tapping their respective pitching staffs.
But bragging rights are rights nonetheless.
On Tuesday night, Utah ended BYU’s two decades of comfort.
Here is the breakdown:
2018: Utah wins, 3-1
2017: Split, 1-1
2016: BYU wins, 2-1
2015: BYU wins, 2-1
2014: Split, 2-2
2013: BYU wins, 2-1
2012: BYU wins, 2-1
2011: Split, 2-2
2010: BYU wins, 2-1
2009: BYU wins, 5-1
2008: Split, 2-2
2007: BYU wins, 3-1
2006: BYU wins, 3-2
2005: BYU wins, 5-1
2004: BYU wins, 6-0
2003: BYU wins, 6-0
2002: Split, 3-3
2001: BYU wins, 4-2
2000: BYU wins, 4-2
1999: BYU wins, 4-1