Alexander, UTRGV baseball looking to continue hot start

EDINBURG — After hauling in six touchdown passes during his freshman year at Ventura College in California, UTRGV outfielder Elijah Alexander wasn’t sure if he would continue to pursue college baseball.

He had played both sports all his life, and he said football was what initially led him to junior college for the 2016 campaign.

“I had a pretty good football season, so going into baseball season I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just play football,’” Alexander said. “There was kind of this back-and-forth thing going on in my head.”

He decided to stick with baseball through at least 2017, and he opened the eyes of UTRGV’s staff when he hit .350 to earn first team all-conference honors.

A scholarship offer to UTRGV signaled that baseball was probably his best option to extend his athletic career, and he’s wasted little time in making an impact.

He didn’t start on opening night Friday against Central Michigan, then entered as a defensive substitution in the ninth inning and won the game in the 10th with a walk-off single.

“I honestly was speechless. It was an incredible moment,” Alexander said. “That’s the kind of moment you dream about as a kid. Walking off, dog pile in the infield. You just have to be ready for when your name is called. My name was called, and I was waiting for that moment the whole night, and I ended up delivering to help my team win a ball game. So it was an awesome feeling.”

Alexander was in the starting lineup during each of the Vaqueros’ next four games, posting a team-best .563 batting average to help UTRGV to a 4-1 start entering a matchup against Illinois-Chicago at 7 tonight at UTRGV Baseball Stadium. The game is the first of five consecutive home dates for UTRGV, which also hosts Mississippi State on Monday and Texas Tech on Tuesday.

In addition to his gaudy batting average, Alexander notched a home run, 5 RBIs and two walks against just a single strikeout.

“I have to admit, I think he surprised all of us,” UTRGV coach Derek Matlock said. “Some guys are gamers, and he seems like he’s a gamer. … He’s real competitive. Great athlete. But he did an outstanding job the whole weekend. Wow.”

Alexander said the competitor in him was hurt not to be starting on opening night, but he added that he didn’t feel he earned the starting opportunity in practice.

Still, Matlock praised Alexander’s offensive development during the fall, saying, “That’s the guy we’ve seen improve the most in a short time.” Matlock said he is eager to see Alexander’s potential with football out of the picture.

“What’s really exciting about Alexander is he plays a full year this year of Division I baseball, then he plays a full summer, and then he comes back and plays a full fall,” Matlock said. “That kid, now that he’s playing a lot of baseball, it’s going to be scary. His ceiling is really high.”

Aaron Dees, who Alexander stepped in for on opening night, has made a significant impact of his own. A junior transfer from Neosho County College in Kansas, Dees hit .400 with a pair of home runs and five RBIs, starting all five games.

“Monster power. We’ve known it since he got here,” Matlock said. “Hard worker. He’s the first one out there and the last one to leave. He hits on his own on Sunday. He’s always hitting. He just has makeup. He has a lot of ability.”

Dees acknowledged his power to all fields and ability to “change the game with one swing” as his biggest strengths, but he was also focused on his shortcomings. Dees said he wants to become tougher with two strikes after striking out six times in 20 at-bats.

“That’s the weakest part of my game right now,” Dees said. “If I can fix that, it’ll help my team a lot.”

UTRGV will be tested this weekend, first against an Illinois-Chicago team that posted a 39-17 record and ranked second in the nation with a 2.65 ERA last season, advancing to the NCAA Tournament.

UTRGV’s next two opponents also reached the NCAA Tournament last year, with Mississippi State No. 25 in the latest NCBWA poll and Texas Tech No. 3.

After a 4-0 start, the Vaqueros were one of 43 teams outside the top 30 to receive votes in the poll on Monday, marking the first time in program history UTRGV has received votes. UTRGV’s undefeated start to the year ended with a loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Tuesday.

“If you told me, ‘Matlock, you’re going to be 4-1 to start the year,’ I’d take it,” Matlock said. “If you tell me, ‘You’re going to catch two games out of these next five,’ I’d probably say, ‘I’ll take it.’ But at the same time, if we play like we’re coached to play, we can beat anybody.”