Mariah Ellis blasted a towering three-run home run during a five-run fourth inning, but NM State (4-3) spoiled UTEP’s home opener as it used a six-run third frame to get by the Miners (4-7), 8-5, on a chilly and breezy Tuesday night at the Helen of Troy Softball Complex
Starting pitcher Devyn Cretz (2-3) cruised the first 2.0 innings, retiring the first six batters she faced. But the Aggies, with two outs in the third inning, proceeded to load the bases to set up a Kelsey Horton two-run single up the middle put the Aggies up 2-0. With two runners on, Victoria Castro reached on an error at left field in which two more runs crossed the dish. Nikki Butler followed with a two-run home run, giving the I-10 rival a commanding 6-0 lead.
But the Miners have seen this scenario before and didn’t let it shake them.
“We can be happy with how [UTEP] continued to fight and came back to score five runs,” fifth-year UTEP head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, especially against [NM State’s] pitchers who had a low ERA.”
Kira McKechnie, in a relief appearance, retired the Aggies in order during the top fourth, while also striking out Destiny Blueford looking in process that set up the offense during the home half.
Courtney Clayton led off the fourth with a hard liner hit to the third baseman and Cortney Smith reached on an error. Taylor Sargent put her squad on the scoreboard when she singled to right that plated Clayton. Then the Miners got back into the ball game when Ellis crushed a 1-2 changeup over left center. The ball was hit so hard it went over the rock wall past the outfield fence, making the count 6-4. After Kacey Duffield used a sac-but to advance Pamala Baber after her single, stud freshman Ariana Valles got her hometown team within a run when she drove in Baber on a hard-double hit to deep right.
However, the Aggies answered with a run in the fifth on a Castro two-out triple. Sargent, who started at first base, then moved to right field, had trouble getting to the ball as the high winds carried Castro’s ball to the fence. Butler then put the Aggies up 8-5 with another two-out hit, a single to center field in the seventh inning for her third RBI of the contest.
The Miners still held tough and made the bottom seventh eventful for the Miner faithful. Clayton led off with a hard single down the middle, while Sargent reached on an error with one out. Ellis reached on a fielder’s choice as Clayton was thrown out at third base. But Baber loaded the bases with a single to left to add to the drama ridden night. Junior transfer Kacey Duffield, who hit 31 home run in her two years at Indian Hills CC, stepped into the batter’s box in front of a loud and boisterous crowd. But starting NM State pitcher Kayla Green (4-1) forced her to lineout to the first baseman. Duffield made good contact, but Aggies’ first baseman Fahren Glackin made a great leaping effort to snag the liner and end the contest.
Julia Wright also made an appearance, tossed 2.0 innings and struck out a trio of Aggies, including back-to-back K’s to end the bottom sixth. Wright, in her last 6.0 innings, has struck out nine batters, while only walking one.
The UTEP pitchers combined for only three walks and nine K’s, but the Aggies scored all eight runs with two outs.
“We keep talking about just having confidence and there’s plays that we should’ve made that would get us those outs,” Echo-Hawk said. “[The team] is not happy with the outcome; they’re happy with fighting back and staying in it, but they beat themselves a little bit with those six runs with two outs.”
The Miners gathered 10 hits, making it four consecutive double-digit hit games. Clayton, Sargent and Baber each finished 2-for-4.
Ellis finished with a career-high three RBI on her first home run in a UTEP uniform. Kailin Ryder made her fifth consecutive start behind the dish, tallied her third caught stealing of the season when she threw out Amy Bergeson at second base during the fourth. Ryder also recorded five putouts and dished out three assists.
UTEP will host the UTEP Tournament Feb. 23-25. The Miners will take on Portland State (3:30 p.m.) and Idaho State (6 p.m.) on Friday. The weekend will continue with games against Idaho State (3:30 p.m.) and Portland State (6 p.m.) on Saturday and will concluded on Sunday against Portland State (12:30 p.m.).
The neutral games include Portland State playing NM State (10:30 a.m.), while the Aggies will play Idaho State (1 p.m.) to open Friday action. Saturday’s openers are Idaho State against NM State (10:30 a.m.) and Portland State versus NM State (1 p.m.). Sunday’s neutral contest is NM State against Idaho State (12:30 p.m.).
Photo gallery by Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta – Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post