The UC Irvine baseball team kicked off its season this weekend with a home series against the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers, who finished last season at 36-22, and first in the Big Ten at 16-7. The ‘Eaters are looking to bounce back after a year that saw them finish below .500 in Big West play at 11-13, and sport a 31-25 overall record. UCI begins a tough non-conference slate that includes consensus preseason #1 TCU.
Despite giving up three runs in each of the first three innings in their season opener, there were plenty of things to like from the ‘Eaters as they nearly made a thrilling comeback against the Golden Gophers, ultimately losing 9-8 at Anteater Ballpark on Saturday.
Both teams combined for 14 runs in the first three innings, with Minnesota scoring all nine of theirs early, but UCI never let the game get out of hand after a rocky start from freshman pitcher Andre Pallante (making his collegiate debut).
“I think it was being a freshman,” said head coach Mike Gillespie of Pallante. “I hate to think we would have to wait a year or two years to hear about him being a star. I’d like it to be next week. But he’s got to grow, it’s in there. I’d like to have his future.”
Senior right fielder Adam Alcantara went three-for-three with an RBI, and extends his hitting streak to 17 games dating back to last season. Junior DH Keston Hiura, named to five Preseason All-American teams, played the part going two-for-four with two runs scored and three clutch RBIs.
The Gophers established their presence quickly, as their first five batters got on base and would end the top half of the first with a 3-0 lead. Junior first baseman Ryan Fitzpatrick would have the answer for the ‘Eaters and sent the first home run of the year over the left field fence after Hiura singled, closing the gap to 3-2.
Minnesota lit up Pallante for three more in the second, with junior third baseman Micah Coffey recording his second two-RBI hit of the contest. Pallante lasted 1.2 innings and was responsible for all six runs.
UCI got one back in the bottom of the second, but the Gophers put up yet another three in the third inning, including a two-run shot from sophomore DH Eduardo Estrada.
Down 9-3, the ‘Eaters were able to plate two more much-needed runs, after Alcantara tripled home Hiura and a single by junior left fielder Cole Kreuter scored Alcantara, cutting the deficit to 9-5.
Freshman Cole Spear took the mound for UCI and effectively stopped the bleeding, putting together three scoreless innings with three strikeouts and only two hits.
After loading the bases in the bottom of the sixth, Hiura unleashed a rocket over the centerfielder’s head, scoring all baserunners and putting the ‘Eaters within one run.
Sophomore Miles Glazier, senior Sean Sparling and freshman Kaz Akamatsu all took turns on the mound, each pitching one inning and giving zero runs. But the UCI bats went quiet, mustering only one hit in the last three innings to eventually drop the opener 9-8.
The ‘Eaters have to work on putting away two-strike counts and coming up with a few more timely hits, but it’s nothing that Gillespie feels that they can’t handle.
“We did some good things on offense, made a few good plays,” said Gillespie, “It’s hard to put perfume on a pig. But it wasn’t just one guy or one good at bat. We obviously saw what Alcantara did, saw what Hiura did and saw what Fitzpatrick did. I think [Minnesota] was pretty impressive, that lineup all played a reasonable amount of time last year. The closer’s legit, but I was okay with how we acquitted ourselves against the starter.”
The ‘Eaters’ third inning — a six-run explosion — proved to be the difference on Sunday as they evened the series against Minnesota with a 7-5 victory.
Junior starter Louis Raymond was credited with the win after going 5.1 innings, effectively quieting the Gophers’ bats to the tune of three earned runs on seven hits and three strikeouts.
“That’s a really good-hitting team,” said Raymond, “Our offense putting up a six spot really helped me relax. Knowing I had good guys behind me in the pen really made it easy on me.”
Alcantara hit safely in the 18th consecutive game, this time going two-for-five with two RBIs and a run scored giving him five total hits for the weekend and three RBIs.
“Towards the end of last year, I really solidified my approach at the plate,” said Alcantara, “And as long as I can execute that approach and swing at a good pitch, that’s what I’m trying to do every at bat: put the barrel on the ball.”
Each team was only able to register one hit apiece through the first two frames, before the floodgates opened in the third.
The Gophers touched up Raymond for two runs after junior Alex Boxwell tripled home sophomore Cole McDevitt and junior Luke Pettersen, then singled in Boxwell.
UCI jumped all over Minnesota starter Toby Anderson in the bottom half, as the first two runners quickly got on and Duarte singled the bases loaded. Hiura drew a walk to bring in one, and an infield single from Fitzpatrick tied the score 2-2. Alcantara proceeded to launch a two-run double off the wall bringing in two more, and an opposite field liner off the bat of junior Cole Kreuter brought Fitzpatrick in to score.
Minnesota freshman Brett Schulze relieved Anderson on the mound for the Gophers, and after yielding a sac fly pitched four dominant innings giving up one earned run on three hits.
Sophomore ‘Eater reliever Jordan Bocko kept a lid on things until the eighth inning, when a bases loaded jam preempted the appearance of UCI senior closer Calvin Faucher. The Gophers pushed one run across on a fielder’s choice, and Pettersen, who finished the weekend eight-for-nine at the plate, singled another one in to make it 7-5.
Faucher put the clamps on and shut down the rally, earning the save and giving UCI their first win of the year, 7-5.
The ‘Eaters move to 1-1, and host San Diego State on Tuesday before embarking for San Diego to take part in the Tony Gwynn Classic next weekend.