Above photo of Rahul Champaneri by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
ALPINE, Texas- Rahul Champaneri has experienced ups and downs through his return to the mound in 2022. But Saturday’s performance was certainly one to remember.
After allowing two-plus earned runs in each of his last three starts, the left-hander paved the way to a 6-1 win on Saturday afternoon for UMHB (21-16, 14-13 ASC), who clinched an ASC Tournament berth in a series victory over Sul Ross State on the road.
“It was definitely his best outing of the year,” UMHB head coach Mike Stawski said. “He pitched with confidence and toughness today. Every count was a pitcher’s count to him. He was never worried about falling behind because he knew he could execute a pitch to win the at bat.”
He did that and more, striking out 11 batters over 8.1 innings, holding a powerful Lobo lineup to just one hit. The lone SRSU run came across as the result of a passed ball.
“What was great was that he was winning with all three pitches. He was able to get outs with the fastball, breaking ball and change up and he could throw them all early and late in counts,” Stawski said. “What was most impressive is that he put up that stat line in a hitter friendly park, with the wind blowing out, against a team that put up a bunch of runs yesterday.”
The hitter-friendly confines of Alpine’s Kokernot Field were put on full display in the first two games of the series, which made Saturday’s result all the more notable. In the series opener, a 10-8 SRSU walk-off win, UMHB pushed runs across in every inning from the second to the sixth, countering a seven-run second inning from the Lobos. With the score knotted at eight in the top of the ninth, the Cru had a chance to claim the lead, but Tyler Martin was thrown out at home plate for the final out, trying to score from second on Rhett Grosz’s single. The Lobos took advantage of the missed opportunity in the bottom of the inning, with Estevan Ortiz swatting a two-run homer that gave SRSU the win.
UMHB responded with a statement in game two, however, going on a nine-run tear in the top of the first inning that featured three-run home runs from both Staton Dudley and Grosz. SRSU starter Dean Foley recorded just one out before being sent to the dugout, giving up five hits, two walks, and eight runs (five earned) in nine batters faced. Grosz would finish 2-for-3 at the plate, Dudley had a 3-for-4 showing, and Hunter Jones led the Cru with four hits in five at-bats, as UMHB evened the series in a 14-9 victory.
Interestingly, with the bats on fire through the first two games and a total of 31 hits for the Crusaders, just four of those went for extra-bases. Instead, UMHB pieced together hit-after-hit in several high-scoring innings.
“‘Do your job, let the next guy do his’ is something I have been saying since I walked on campus,” Stawski said. The hitters have really bought into that motto and found a ton of success in it. They realized they can’t win a game by themselves.”
Powered by Champaneri’s pitching in the series finale, UMHB gained a 5-0 lead by the fifth inning. SRSU responded with a run in the fifth, but Malek Bolin, 4-for-10 in the series’ first two games, widened the margin once again, singling down the left field line to score Caimyn Holiday. But it was more than just a single. For the third straight weekend, the senior broke a program record, this time for RBIs in a season, with 48.
The road back to Belton is a long one, spanning over 400 miles. But Stawski joked earlier in the week that a series win might make that six-and-a-half-hour return trip seem a little shorter. And it should. The Crusaders are back in the ASC Tournament, and appear to be gaining momentum by the day.
Storylines through the series
Fatigue did not show on Saturday: For the first time this year, UMHB played a doubleheader to open a conference series, rather than close it. While a small difference to some, it can greatly affect the stamina of a team entering what, in this case, was a key series finale. Stawski was forced to use nine different pitchers on Friday, and it did not help that game two spanned three hours, 40 minutes. But the head coach said neither of those things affected the Cru all that much on Saturday.
Stawski: “It was a long day at the park but like this program believes a long day at the ballpark is better than anything else we could be doing, so we were chomping at the bit to get back today and get a series win.”
Grosz had a breakout series: The third baseman was phenomenal at the plate, batting 5-for-12 with three RBIs. He raised his batting average from .276 to .291 and hit his first homer since March 26.
Above .500: UMHB is back above .500 in conference play, now holding a 14-13 record, and the Crusaders’ series win allowed them to jump to fourth in the ASC. Just four teams have punched their tickets to the ASC Tournament heading into the final weekend of the season, as four teams, including the Cru, sit within two games of each other.
UMHB hosts Howard Payne (6-20 ASC) at Red Murff Field in Belton next weekend. It closes out the regular season schedule, with a 6 p.m. Friday duel followed by a noon doubleheader Saturday. The ASC Tournament will be held May 5-7 at ETBU.