Snuffing out an eighth-inning rally just in time, the New Mexico Highlands Cowboys nipped Mesa State 11-10 on Sunday to secure a split of their four-game weekend series.
As close as it was, it was a quality win for the Cowboys (33-16, 23-10 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference). Mesa State is ranked second in NCAA Division II baseball, first in the Central region, and is the heavy favorite to win the RMAC. And the Mavericks had beaten NMHU five straight games before the Cowboys split a Saturday doubleheader.
Danny Brown led Highlands by hitting 3 of 5, driving in two runs, and scoring two of his own. Jason Carr was 2 of 4 with two RBI and a run. And the seven other Cowboy batters tallied one hit apiece on Sunday.
Mike Provencher was 4 of 4 for the Mavs (37-9, 27-6). Matt Bodenchuk homered and notched a game-high six RBI.
After getting a good start with a 4-1 first inning, Highlands stayed in front until Mesa tied it at 7-7 with a solo run in the top of the sixth.
Held scoreless for the three middle innings, the Cowboys regained their offensive stroke with four runs in the bottom of the seventh.
Brown singled to drive in Chris Perez, who’d gotten on with a single and then made it to third on a throwing error by MSC starter Andy Williams. Reliever Scott Bachman hit Kristian Sifuentes with a pitch, then walked Kyle Gutchewsky, loading the bases. So there was no room left when David Bustillos also got hit by a pitch, and Brown scored. Bachman was pulled after that, but Kyle Falvey kept the surge going by singling up the middle to drive in Sifuentes and Gutchewsky.
Mesa rallied and put three runs on the board in the eighth when Matt Bodenchuk rocked a home run over the fence in left field with two men on. With nobody out, Craig Lanzarott got on board courtesy of a fielding error. But the Cowboys turned a nifty double play to get out Grant Vickers and Lanzarott. And Blake Carlquist grounded out to first to end the rally.
In the top of the ninth, Highlands relief pitcher Derek Grieve gave up just a single before the Cowboy defense retired the side and wrapped up the win.
Tyler Wichmann started the gme on the mound for NMHU, but Grieve recorded the win — his first this season — after going five and two-thirds innings and allowing four runs on eight hits.
Scott Bachman (4-1) sustained the loss for Mesa State.
The weekend series was a sharp contrast to the RMAC archrivals’ first set March 6-8 in Grand Junction, Colo. Mesa won 20-9, 15-1, 4-3 and 10-3 for the sweep. That had been the teams’ first meeting since a wild, rain-soaked marathon in the 2008 RMAC tournament. The Cowboys upset the Mavs on their home field to reach a championship final against a red-hot (and considerably fresher) Nebraska-Kearney team. UNK won that game to take the title.
NMHU, the second-ranked team in the RMAC befhind the Mavericks, concludes the regular season with a four-game series against Metro State this Friday through Sunday at Brandt Park. Highlands won three of four vs. the Roadrunners (7-4, 10-1, 7-8, 10-8) March 13-15 in Denver; the latter two games required extra innings.
Mesa has all but clinched the regular-season title and will play Colorado Christian to end its campaign. Mesa is ranked second nationally in the April 21 poll of the National College Baseball Writers Association, trailing only Southern Arkansas (41-7 as of the poll date).
NMHU received votes in that Top 25 poll and was unofficially 36th. In addition to the two wins vs. No. 2 Mesa, NMHU has beaten 17th ranked Abilene Christian twice (in a four-game set Feb. 6-8 in Abilene, Texas).
The six-team RMAC championship tournament will be held the following week in Pueblo, Colo.
For this and other sports stories, please see the Wednesday print edition of the Optic.