UTRGV baseball off to best start in 20 years

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's Christian Sepulveda reaches out for a tag at practice at UTRGV on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — If one’s in search of a good time on the weekends, the hottest party in town can be found down in the UTRGV dugout.

Anytime after a UTRGV run crosses the plate and gets added to the scoreboard, the dugout momentarily transforms from a group of locked in baseball players into a scene straight out of a nightclub as the Vaqueros mob the scoring runner, jumping and cheering in celebration.

UTRGV has plenty of reason to relish these moments as of late as the Vaqueros (23-12, 9-3 WAC) are off to the program’s best overall start in 20 years and currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Western Athletic Conference. The 9-3 record during WAC play is also a program-best since the 2013 season in the Great West Conference.

“We’re out here having a blast and that’s really what it’s about and that’s really going to get the best product (out) of yourself and from the team when you’re having fun,” senior second baseman Anthony Gomez said. “We’re definitely enjoying ourselves, and shout out to the coaches for letting us be who we are. Even though we still have to be serious in a sense, we’re definitely having fun with it and having a good time.”

UTRGV is coming off a road sweep of Grand Canyon where they won the opener by one run and needed extra innings in Games 2 and 3 to bring out the brooms. Whether it be winning in walk-off fashion or going extras on the road, the Vaqueros have found ways to get the job done.

Coach Derek Matlock said this team’s ability to come through in late-game situations thus far has to do with getting all three phases going. But, beyond that, it’s the grit and fight that UTRGV possesses.

“It has a little bit to do with everything. The offense had some big key hits and good at-bats. I think it takes all three phases to win and I think we’re doing some of that right now,” Matlock said. “One thing coaches have been saying since Rhode Island is that we have a lot of grit. We got some toughness and we’re going to fight you, and that’s our culture. It’s nice to hear other coaches, like Grand Canyon’s coach Andy Stankiewicz said after the game, ‘You got more grit, you got more fight than we got. We’d have won two of those games if we had more fight.’ I think we have a little bit of fight right now, we got some confidence and that’s exciting to see a little bit of culture.”

One player who has proved to bring it every time he steps on the diamond is senior pitcher Ryan Jackson. A McAllen Rowe alum, Jackson has become UTRGV’s closer, racking up 14 saves over the last two seasons, two short of tying the program record.

He was named the WAC Pitcher of the Week on Monday for his play against GCU in which he recorded two saves and one win, while striking out six batters during five innings of work. Jackson now has seven saves on the year with a 3-3 record and has punched out 42 batters in 27.2 innings.

“I love the feeling of going into the game with a close lead or tied. At heart, I tell myself I’m still a position player, because I get to go into the game more often as a closer,” Jackson said. “Ever since I was young I was always put into tight situations. I just got to get my job done so they don’t score any runs and we’re good.”

UTRGV will be looking to keep up the fun and winning this weekend as the Vaqueros are set to open a three-game WAC series against California Baptist at 7 tonight at UTRGV Baseball Stadium in Edinburg. Game 2 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday with the finale slated for noon on Saturday due to the Easter holiday.