EDINBURG — After the Broncs had been held without a baserunner for 5 full innings, Alex Howe came through with RBI hits in the sixth and seventh to push UTPA to an 8-5 win against North Dakota on Friday.
The win keeps the Broncs (21-27, 11-9 WAC) in playoff position in an extremely tight conference race.
“He’s done it before, hopefully he’ll continue to do it in the future, but he did it once again tonight,” coach Manny Mantrana said of Howe’s performance. “That was big. He’s been our best hitter.”
Starter Zach Muckenhirn was perfect through the first five innings as North Dakota jumped out to a 2-0 lead. UTPA started to rally with two outs in the sixth, as Evan Mason drew a walk, Jesus Garcia reached on catcher’s interference and Bryan Ramirez walked.
That left the bases loaded for Howe, who drilled a single up the middle. When North Dakota center fielder Jacob Threlkeld bobbled the ball, all three runs came home to give UTPA a 3-2 lead.
“Once we got that first runner, that’s when the floodgates opened for us,” Howe said. “You’ve just got to stay calm. Believe in your routine in your at-bat and get a good pitch to hit. He left a pitch over the plate, and I put a good swing on it.”
After North Dakota answered with three more runs in the seventh, UTPA took the lead for good with five in the bottom half of the same frame.
Victor Garcia started the inning with a single, Dillon Engelhart walked, and Shane Ammon reached on an error to load the bases. Pinch hitter Edgar Cordon cut the Broncs’ deficit to 5-4 with a single to right, and Jesus Garcia grounded into a fielder’s choice to tie the game.
After Ramirez hit an RBI single up the middle, Howe stepped to the plate again and gave the Broncs an 8-5 cushion with a two-run triple to the gap in left-center.
“He threw me a fastball middle-out, and I was lucky enough to put the barrel on it,” Howe said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Broncs won despite getting outhit 14 to 6. North Dakota stranded 12 men on base as UTPA consistently skirted danger.
Although North Dakota scored three in the seventh, the damage could have been much worse were it not for a great defensive play by Victor Garcia at first.
With the bases loaded and one out, North Dakota’s Daniel Lockhart hit a popup into foul territory behind the first-base bag. Garcia said he thought there was “no way” he could get to the ball off the bat. He sprinted backwards to where he thought the ball might land and reached out to make the over-the-shoulder grab, then quickly turned and fired home to retire Luis Calvo, who was attempting to tag up and score.
“Forget top 10, that was the top play,” Mantrana said.
With the win, the Broncs stay in playoff position in a tightly bunched WAC race. After starting the season 1-5, UTPA is 11-9 in conference, having won five consecutive WAC series. The Broncs are only two games out of second place and a first-round bye, but they are also just a game and a half away from being outside the top six. Seven games remain on UTPA’s WAC schedule.
“That’s a big win for us tonight,” Howe said. “We’re together now more than ever. … I feel like our best baseball is right around the corner.”