The 28th-ranked Wolf Pack baseball team made history Sunday, clinching the University of Nevada's first Mountain West championship in program history. Nevada (39-11, 21-6) defeated New Mexico, 14-9, in extra innings at Lobo Field to clinch its fourth conference title and first-ever outright conference title.
Within minutes of each other, junior Ryan Howell hit a three-run home run in the 10th inning and UNLV's 4-3 score line over San Diego State went final. With an Adam Whitt strike out for the final out in the bottom of the 10th, the Pack dugout rushed the mound in celebration of Nevada's first conference championship since 2012.
The Wolf Pack swept New Mexico – its seventh sweep of the season – and improved to 21-6 in the Mountain West, leading the Aztecs by four games with three MW games left on the schedule. Nevada also improved to 39-11 overall, tying for the fourth-most wins in a season in recorded Pack history. The Pack has won eight of its nine MW three-game series this season en route to the league crown.
“I'm very proud of our players,” said head coach Jay Johnson after clinching his first conference title as a head coach. “It's a special thing to be called a champion, and every player and coach in this program has earned that title this year.”
In a game that saw four lead changes and two ties, the Wolf Pack made history in the top of the 10th inning with six runs to clinch the sweep. Kyle Hunt drew a lead-off walk and Cal Stevenson singled before Howell hit a three-run homer over the left field fence. Kewby Meyer hit an RBI sacrifice fly and Bryce Greager drove in another run with an RBI double as Nevada took a six-run cushion into the bottom of the 10th.
Whitt – the local product from Carson City – earned a fly out and ground out before surrendering a solo home run. The 6-foot-3 righty calmly struck out his next batter to finalize Nevada's 14-9 victory and its first Mountain West championship.
“We have a tremendous support staff and community in Reno that gets behind us,” said Johnson. “A lot of people have contributed to this honor, and we're thrilled to be bringing a conference championship back home.”
New Mexico led 4-0 before Nevada got on the board in the fourth inning with Austin Byler's 13th home run of the season. The senior first baseman launched a solo homer over the right field fence on a 0-2 count. The Pack drew consecutive innings and loaded the bases later in the fourth frame before Devencenzi gave Nevada the lead with one swing of the bat. The senior catcher blasted a 3-1 pitch over the left field fence for his first career grand slam, putting the Pack in front, 5-4. The Tracy, Calif., native has two home runs on the season.
Trenton Brooks drew a lead-off walk to open the fifth inning. Kewby Meyer followed with an RBI double to the corner, scoring Brooks all the way from first base. The Lobos responded with three consecutive RBI hits to reclaim the lead in the bottom fifth.
Nevada tied the game at seven runs apiece in the sixth inning as Cal Stevenson's first hit of the game scored Devencenzi from second base. The Pack then took an 8-7 lead in the top of the seventh as Meyer's 20th double of the season scored Byler. The Lobos tied the game in its half of the inning with a bases-loaded walk.
Both teams used their closers – junior RHP Adam Whitt for Nevada and senior RHP Jake Cole – to post scoreless frames in the eighth and ninth as the Pack went to extras for the fourth time this season. Nevada scored six runs on five hits in the bottom of the 10th to clinch the victory.
Devencenzi (2-of-4), Stevenson (2-of-6), Byler (2-of-5), Brooks (2-of-4) and Meyer (2-of-5) as Nevada scored 14 runs on 15 hits. The Pack used five pitchers in the victory as sophomore RHP Evan McMahan pitched 4.2 innings in relief and Whitt improved to 2-1 after pitching the final three innings.
The Pack will return to action Monday, playing its fourth road game in as many days. Nevada will play at Saint Mary's (23-23) at 3 p.m. PT at Louis Guisto Field in Moraga, Calif. The Pack will be looking to sweep the Gaels after defeating them twice last week at Peccole Park. Nevada's next four games will be nonconference matchups before the Pack closes MW play and the regular season with a three-game series at Peccole Park against Air Force, May 14-16.
Quotes from head coach Jay Johnson:
On what it means for the program to clinch the University of Nevada's first-ever Mountain West Championship…
“I'm very proud of our players. It's a special thing to be called a champion, and every player and coach in this program has earned that title this year.”
On the celebration following the final out…
“Someone in the dugout saw the score (UNLV's win over SDSU) and told everybody with two outs left. I'm really grateful it turned out the way I did. I think it's a special moment for the players to have an on-field celebration like that.”
On what it has taken this season to win the 2015 Mountain West championship…
“It's been a lot of very meaningful contributions by very special people. That starts first and foremost with the players. Our returning players bought in from the very second we got here as a new coaching staff. Our recruits took a leap of faith and believed in us. We have a tremendous support staff and community in Reno that gets behind us. A lot of people have contributed to this, and we're thrilled to be bringing a conference championship back home.”
On bigger things to come this season…
“Our focus is always on what's directly in front of us. Tonight, we'll allow our guys to enjoy a very special flight, then we'll be back on the field tomorrow with another great opportunity against Saint Mary's. I have zero concerns about their readiness for that. Our focus won't change. We're looking for consistent improvement on a daily basis, and that's what we'll do going forward.”
Nevada baseball regular season conference champions:
1994: Big West Co-Champions, 41-15, 16-5 (Nevada, Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton)
2000: Big West Co-Champions, 38-19, 21-9 (Nevada, Cal State Fullerton)