After the cancellation of their opening conference series versus Northern Colorado due to inclement weather, then dropping three of their first four Western Athletic Conference games, the Vaqueros have found a rhythm and their play has reflected that.
Led by Head Coach Manny Mantrana, the team recently picked up its first WAC series sweep of the season and raised its consecutive win total to five as it swept the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks. In the second game versus UND on April 16, the floodgates opened and the offense ignited when redshirt junior catcher Austin Oakes blasted a solo home run, then senior third baseman Scott Mercer followed with a grand slam in the same inning.
Mantrana spoke after the team’s 12-2 victory against UND on getting production throughout the lineup.
“Anytime you have one through nine producing it’s always good. Obviously, No. 1 on the important list to win baseball games is dominant pitching. No. 2 is defense. Then, you want hitting throughout the lineup and then you want timely hitting,” the coach said. “I think, offensively, we definitely had hitting one through nine and we got the timely hitting.”
Oakes, coming off shoulder surgery last year, explained how the team’s play has built rhythm.
“For the most part, when you have your defense going, you have your pitching going. It takes a lot of pressure off your at-bats. You get to look for something to drive, put a good swing on it and hit it hard,” Oakes said after hitting his first career home run at UTRGV. “We’re starting to come together, we’re starting to peak at the right time. If we can just take this momentum and roll with it, we’ll be good.”
The Vaqueros’ recent hot streak has been noticed and rewarded by the WAC as Mercer was named WAC hitter of the week and junior pitcher Andrew Garcia earned the title of WAC pitcher of the week for their play during April 4 through 10. They are the second and third UTRGV players to be honored by the conference in the last month, joining sophomore Johnny Gonzalez, who was named WAC pitcher of the week on March 21.
Mercer, a California native who has made multiple outstanding defensive plays on third base throughout the season, touched on how defense and pitching can lift the offense.
“When you get a lot of momentum coming into the dugout, quick innings, it’s a lot easier, especially with our pitching,” said Mercer, whose batting average is .317 this season. “It’s really encouraging and helps us offensively. If I’m not getting it done offensively, I try to do something defensively and it’s nice to have them both come together.”
Fresh off pitcher of the week honors, Garcia, who is in his first year with the Vaqueros, talked about the team’s recent success and putting the conference on notice that UTRGV is here to play ball.
“It’s huge. It’s telling the WAC we’re here and we’re going to win ballgames and we’re going to try to get into the WAC playoffs,” said Garcia, a junior college transfer. “We’re playing well right now, all around we’re starting to jell. Bats are waking up, pitching has been good, defense has been great, and it’s at the right time, halfway through the WAC season.”
The Vaqueros streak of five straight victories was ended this week when they dropped two non-conference interstate matchups against the University of Texas Longhorns 7-5 and the Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi Islanders 5-4 that were scheduled to prepare the squad for the remainder of the grueling WAC season. There are 12 conference games left to determine the top six teams who will qualify for the WAC Tournament, which is the team’s ultimate goal.
The Vaqueros next hit the road for a three-game series when they take on the Seattle University Redhawks beginning at 7 p.m. Friday in Seattle as they look to continue their run in conference play.