Provo • Utah starter Chase Rezac's first pitch in Tuesday's rivalry baseball game against BYU sailed over the right-field fence at Miller Field, courtesy of the Cougars' two-sport star, Jacob Hannemann.
Talk about a tone-setter.
Using that momentum provided by a player who is actually on scholarship in football, the Cougars rolled to an easy 9-3 win over the Utes to even the season series at 1-1, with two left to play.
"I just saw it and reacted and swung," Hannemann said of that first pitch after BYU ace Desmond Poulson had shut down the Utes in the top of the first, the only inning Poulson worked. "It was great. I always want to go in and start things off and get a couple runs that first inning. I love the first pitch fastball, and that's what I got, so I took it out."
First-year BYU coach Mike Littlewood couldn't help but smile when the Hanneman's shot easily cleared the 345-foot sign.
"I talked to Jake before the game, and I said, 'he might try to sneak a fastball first pitch of the game by you, so look inner half, stay in your zone.' And man, when I saw that thing going out, I was patting him on the back."
Amazingly, Hannemann also ripped the second pitch he saw, lining a shot down the right-field line for a run-scoring double to give the Cougars a 3-0 lead in the second inning. Jaycob Brugman then belted a 3-run double to give the Cougars (20-15) a 6-0 lead, and BYU was on its way to getting a bit of revenge after giving up a late lead and falling 5-4 in 10 innings in Salt Lake City back on March 26.
"Oh yeah, this is a big deal," said Hannemann, a defensive back/center-fielder who says he will leave BYU and turn professional in baseball if he is drafted and then offered enough money he's got a certain figure in mind in June. "We always come out fired up for every game, I feel like, but with the Utes it is a little special. We lost the last game. That was tough. So we wanted to get them tonight."
The Cougars play at Utah (16-20) on May 7, then host the Utes a week later at Miller Field.
"It is always nice to beat Utah, and fortunately we got them on a good night," Littlewood said. "Their pitching was a little bit depleted, and we got on Rezac early. So we got them on the right night."
Reliever Keaton Cenatiempo was credited with the win, although the Cougars were up 6-1 when he entered in the fifth inning. Poulson and second-inning pitcher Jeff Barker were on pitch counts, and the plan was for Adam Miller to work the third and fourth innings, which he did.
Still, Cenatiempo deserved the victory, allowing no hits through his first three innings of work. He tired in the eighth, walking the first two batters he faced, before Littlewood turned to Matt Milke the rest of the way.
"So it worked out perfect for us," Littlewood said of the pitching plan, knowing the Cougars will need fresh arms this weekend in a key West Coast Conference series at league-leading Gonzaga (13-5, 26-11).
As for the Utes, they also played the game knowing Arizona State comes to SLC for a big three-game series that starts Friday. After Rezac was chased, reliever Bret Helton shut down the Cougars for four innings before being the victim of some shoddy fielding miscommunication in right field in the eighth.
That's when BYU's Kelton Caldwell, Bret Lopez and Dakota Hernandez drove in runs to put it out of reach.
The Utes put men aboard in every inning but the fifth, seventh and ninth, but could never really deliver the big hit against the five BYU pitchers. They got on the board in the fourth when Braden Anderson drove in A.J. Young, who had singled. Cory Hunt's sacrifice fly plated Connor Eppard in the eighth, and Wyler Smith scored on a wild pitch.
Littlewood said he likes the way his team is playing right now, having gone 9-2 since it fell at Utah last month.
"I think our whole goal from the get-go was to be one of the top four teams in the West Coast Conference," Littlewood said. "That was really our only team goal, to get to the conference tournament and see what happens. And right now, we have an opportunity. We control our own destiny. That sounds cliche, but that's the truth."
The Cougars are in sixth place in the league at 7-5, but can obviously get right back near the top with some wins in Spokane this weekend.