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UCI One Win Away From College World Series, Omaha

Marlon Castillo/Photography Intern

The UC Irvine Anteaters (43-17) didn’t let a second straight day of rain delayed action inspire them to quit on Sunday night against No. 1 Virginia (53-10). Seven hours after the game started, UCI freshman pitcher Andrew Thurman struck out Virginia’s leadoff man to lock down game two, 6-4.

Just an hour before Thurman could do so, UCI’s chances were dwindling. They hadn’t scored a single run in the first 14 innings of the series, but with one swing of the bat, Irvine’s senior left fielder Drew Hillman connected for a solo shot that was symbolic of the team’s impending comeback, closing the gap to 3-1. It was a message. Hillman’s moon-shot juxtaposed an entire weekend of frustration featuring double play balls, base running errors and fielding gaffs.

Down 3-1, UCI’s energy picked up on the bench. Virginia, meanwhile, had been untouchable all weekend and seemed ruffled thereafter. In the seventh, Christian “Titi” Ramirez stepped up to the plate and drew a leadoff walk. Junior designated hitter Jordan Leyland followed, but struck out with Ramirez still on first.

“Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that Leyland didn’t hit into another double play,” the ESPN U announcer commented.

A head-scratching thought, but when second baseman Tommy Reyes stroked a single to right center in the next at-bat, the thought of having two outs with a runner on second would have been deflating compared to the play’s result. Virginia’s center fielder misplayed Reyes’ liner that scooted under his glove on the wet turf and scored Ramirez from first. Reyes advanced to second and was knocked in by catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, the team’s hero and MVP of the Los Angeles Regional.

Tied 3-3, Thurman gave up an RBI double in the top of the 8th that scored a runner when UCI’s veteran right fielder Sean Madigan stumbled in the rain-soaked outfield. Thurman ended the threat by getting the next hitter to line out to junior shortstop D.J. Crumlich.

In the bottom of the eighth, Hillman came up clutch again with the bags empty, stroking a double down into the left field corner. The next batter, Jordan Fox, took one for the team and wore a fastball before trotting down to first base to make it runners on first and second with one out.

After Ramirez moved Hillman over to third on a sacrifice fly, Leyland stepped to the plate with a chance to do some damage. Virginia watched Fox practically walk to second base as he tried to bait Virginia into a rundown. With runners in scoring position, Irvine’s designated hitter Jordan Leyland – who started a route in the team’s first postseason game against Fresno last weekend with a three run home run – came up clutch again, stroking a double into the left-centerfield gap and knocking in two runs. UCI tacked on one more run when Reyes singled in pinch runner Dillon Moyer from second before being tagged out trying to push his luck at second.

Head Coach Mike Gillespie placed his faith in Thurman in the ninth. With closer Brian Hernandez’s spotty record as of late, Gillespie called upon Thurman to throw his fourth inning of the evening after relieving sophomore starter Matt Whitehouse, who pitched five innings, giving up three runs with four strikeouts before the rain delay.

Thurman looked polished and unbothered by Virginia’s potent batting order and overbearing supporting cast in the bleachers. In a tense moment unlike any that Thurman has ever faced, he retired the side in order in the ninth. Inducing a fly out from the Cavaliers’ ace Danny Hultzen, who pinch hit in the eighth spot, Thurman then locked down the second out by forcing another pop up to center field. To end the evening, the freshman struck out leadoff man Chris Taylor, who was 2-2 with a double, to force game three on Monday, June 13.

Sunday’s come-from-behind victory was huge for Irvine baseball, one day after Gillespie noted that the only chance they had against Hultzen was if the lightning storm blew up the stadium. The ’Eaters have tied up the series against the top-ranked team in the nation.

One game away from returning to Omaha for their second appearance in team history and the first since 2007, the Anteaters could call upon junior starter Crosby Slaught (7-2 with a 3.97 ERA) in the series finale on Monday with reliable relievers Jimmy Litchfield, Phillip Ferragamo and Andy Lines fresh in the bullpen. But don’t be surprised if Irvine’s ace, Matt Summers (11-2), takes the ball when the game is on the line, having pitched 6 innings in the team’s 6-0 loss on Friday night and just 12 innings in two postseason starts since throwing a no-hitter on May 27 against Long Beach State. All bets are off. This is playoff baseball at its finest.

UC Irvine was the first team in College World Series history to win back-to-back extra inning affairs in consecutive days in 2007. They also set the record for longest game in the tournament’s storied history with a thrilling, 13 inning victory against Big West rival Cal State Fullerton.

Win or lose tomorrow, Gillespie and the college baseball world learned today that Andrew Thurman and Matt Whitehouse can pitch in big games, juniors Ronnie Shaeffer, Jordan Leyland and Tommy Reyes could come up clutch despite hitting sub-.300 throughout the season and that Irvine’s fundamental baseball, streaky hitting and ability to scratch across runs doesn’t make them a Cinderella Story, but a team that has a legitimate shot at winning their first National Championship in program history.