Middle Tennessee scored five runs right off the bat to take a 5-0 lead in the first inning, but UTEP racked up 10 unanswered runs to hold on for a 10-7 series clinching victory on Sunday at the Helen of Troy Softball Complex.
The Miners (7-19, 2-4 Conference USA) and Blue Raiders (10-13, 1-5 C-USA) combined for 17 runs and 25 hits, the most during a single conference contest this season.
UTEP tied its season high in runs (10) and hits (13), while Devyn Cretz (5-5) picked up the victory and senior El Paso native Kaitlin Fifield notched her second save of the season to clinch the series triumph.
“It’s huge [to win the weekend series],” fourth-year head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk said. “Sometimes when you start off slow and you’re facing tough opponents, your record doesn’t show your progress. It’s big – especially at home – to get two of the three wins. It’s also a big confidence booster going into the rest of conference play.”
The Miners found themselves down five runs early and didn’t let the deficit affect them. In the bottom first with one out, freshman Pamala Baber – who’s had a hot bat the last few weeks – doubled in Kaitlin Ryder and Kiki Pepi. Ryder walked while Pepi singled to right field during the inning.
With the score 5-2, Taylor Sargent and Mallorie Cross used back-to-back singles to right, while Ariel Blair reached on an error to load the bases. The Miners would move the line to tie the game 5-5 after Courtney Clayton and Ryder came up with back-to-back RBI singles and Pepi drove in a run on a fielder’s choice.
The Orange and Blue took the go-ahead lead in the third inning. Cortney Smith led off the frame with a single to left. Sargent then attempted a sac-bunt, but reached first safely on the fielder’s choice as Smith was called safe at second. Cross advanced the runners to second and third on a sac-bunt to set up Macey Brown in a pinch-hit situation.
The freshman came up with a RBI single to left that scored Smith and Clayton gave the Miners a 7-5 advantage after a sac-fly to left that plated Sargent. Brown is 2-for-2 with three RBI in her last two pinch-hit at bats.
The Miners crossed the dish a trio of times in the fourth inning led by Smith’s two-run single up the middle and a Cross RBI single down the left line that scored pinch runner Brianna Red for a UTEP, 10-5, lead.
In the fifth, Fifield replaced Cretz in the circle after bases became loaded off back-to-back hits and a walked batter with one out. Fifield held the Blue Raiders’ bats in check after two runs scored on a single and a walked batter with bases loaded. She forced Precious Birdsong to pop out to the shortstop Smith, while the runner at first was thrown out at second on a fielder’s choice to end the rally.
In the seventh, Lexi Cushing led off with a hard single to right center. But the defense came up with a huge 4-6-3 double play that Kirstyn Cuccia hit into. Kristin Uselton, who homered on Saturday night, grounded out to third base to end the contest.
“After the fifth when [Middle Tennessee] came back and scored the two runs, it could’ve gone the same way as it did yesterday, but there was a different feel today,” Echo-Hawk said. “It was more of a feeling that we are going to win today, as opposed to being on our heels and holding our breath to see what happens. I think it started in the circle. Kaitlin did a great job and was super confident getting us some ground balls for that double play. After that double play, we knew no one else was going to get on base.”
Pepi (2-4), Baber (2-4), Smith (2-4) and Cross (2-2) each tallied multiple hits, while Clayton, Baber and Smith each recorded a pair of RBI. Sargent scored two runs and Blair stole her first bag of the season. Cretz threw 4.0 frames, striking out a pair of batters and Fifield threw 2.2 solid innings, allowing two hits.
“It’s not how you start the season, it’s how you finish the season,” Echo-Hawk said. “And as long as we progress throughout the course of the season, we’re going to be okay. I think everyone on the outside looking in thinks things are going bad. But we’re hitting our stride and getting better every single day.”
Last season, UTEP was 9-18 heading into a league series against LA Tech in El Paso. The Miners won the series, while eventually advancing to the C-USA Tournament.
UTEP will continue its home slate as Southern Miss make its way to the Sun City for a three-game seriesMarch 25-26. Saturday’s contests will start at 3 p.m., while Sunday’s game is a 11 a.m. start. The Miners will then host rival NM State in a doubleheader on March 28.
Photos by Andres Acosta, El Paso Herald-Post Chief Photographer