UC Irvine baseball (14-23, 2-7) hosted rival Long Beach State this past weekend, but it was the No. 12 Dirtbags who left the ball black-and-blue as they compiled double-digit hit totals in all three games, while the ‘Eaters endured their first shutout since 2015. After splitting a two-game matchup with USC earlier in the week, UCI headed into the series with some serious ground to make up as they already sit well behind the Big West leaders. The ‘Eaters dropped all three to a Long Beach squad who improved to 24-13 on the year and 9-2 in conference, tops in the Big West. The Dirtbags effectively neutralized junior Keston Hiura, who entered the series fourth in the nation in batting average at .423, by not giving him much to hit and walking him four times in addition to a hit-by-pitch.
The series opener was always in reach for UCI, but it ended as a 4-0 shutout at the hands of junior Dirtbag starter Darren McCaughan, who went the whole nine innings for his third complete game of the year and only allowed three hits, no walks and struck out five.
Junior Louis Raymond was tagged with the loss for the ‘Eaters, but pitched valiantly, and recorded career highs with eight innings pitched, seven strikeouts and 112 pitches on the night, giving up one unearned run in the second inning before allowing two more before he was pulled in the ninth.
An error assessed to Raymond would move a baserunner to third in the top of the second, who would later score on a double play ball to break the tie and move Long Beach ahead 1-0.
Although Raymond kept the Beach at bay for the most part, UCI never threatened to score, and were retired in order in over half of their trips to the plate and only reached second base once.
Senior Mikey Duarte and freshmen Adrian Damla and Ryan Johnston were the only ‘Eaters to register hits, all singles.
Senior Daniel Jackson homered to leadoff the ninth, and two RBI-singles completed the 4-0 shutout as McCaughan slammed the door in the bottom half.
After a promising start, UCI fell apart as Saturday’s game wore on and allowed a tie game to balloon to a six-run lead for Long Beach State, who went on to prevail 8-2.
The ‘Eaters looked hapless in the field at times, misplaying a rundown that led to a three-run sixth inning for the Dirtbags and committing two errors in the eighth that nearly led to more.
“We’re not playing the game of baseball very well,” said associate head coach Ben Orloff, after head coach Mike Gillespie declined to comment. “We haven’t done a good job of getting outs on bunts, throwing to wrong bases … we’ve just not played baseball very well.”
Long Beach tallied a run in the first inning, but UCI senior Evan Cassolato responded in the second, driving in Damla with an RBI-single with two outs.
The Dirtbags rallied to score two more, but Cassolato came through again in the fourth with an RBI-double, with two outs to score junior Devin Pettengill.
With opposing teams avoiding Hiura’s bat, Cassolato has been a steady force in the top spot of the lineup, batting .326 and consistently coming up with big hits in high-pressure situations. Duarte has pulled his weight as well, with his average currently sitting at .346, but he has missed time with injuries. Senior cleanup hitter Adam Alcantara is the latest ‘Eater to be sidelined with an injury, as UCI struggles to maintain continuity and potency as a unit.
“It hurts to not have everybody healthy,” said Orloff. “But everybody has injuries, and I don’t think that’s an excuse. We have to figure out how, in the game, to recognize situations communicate properly and execute the way it’s supposed to be done.”
The ‘Eaters failed to score again after the fourth, and in combination with the three-run sixth for the Beach, they allowed another run in the ninth to produce the 8-2 final.
As UCI continues to slide down the conference standings, they look to return to fundamental baseball in order to finish strong in an unforgiving Big West.
“Before you can talk about winning, you have to not do the things that make you lose,” said Orloff. “And that’s where we are right now: We are self-inflicting a lot of wounds, and not giving ourselves a chance to win.”
It was more of the same in the final game of the series, as the ‘Eaters committed three more costly errors and their offense continued to lie dormant in the 5-2 defeat.
‘Eater sophomore Jordan Bocko threw six strong innings, notching a career-high 112 pitches, and was charged with two earned runs, but lacked the support of the bats.
Senior Dave Smith did his part for Long Beach, lasting 7.1 and allowing only two earned runs on six hits before the Beach bullpen took over to shut the door.
The Dirtbags blew the game open in the third, scoring all three runs with two outs in the inning thanks to a few hits, a wild pitch and a throwing error on UCI.
Long Beach would push across a run in both the sixth and the eighth before the ‘Eaters were able to cut into the lead in the bottom of the eighth. Damla led off the frame with a double and scored on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Cassolato, who would take second after an errant throw. Hiura walked, and Johnston doubled Cassolato in to narrow the deficit to 5-2. The tying run would come to the plate before the Dirtbags snuffed out the charge, and Long Beach completed the sweep.
The eight hits were the most productive the ‘Eaters had been all series, and freshman Mikey Filia was able to connect for his first career hit in what would be a two-hit game for the outfielder.
“I thought we played better today, which maybe is different than good,” said Orloff. “But we played better, we competed … you’re not always going to play perfect, but I thought the effort and energy was there.”
The offense came too little too late for UCI, who has a long uphill battle toward Big West relevance. The ‘Eaters play at San Diego on Tuesday before taking on another conference powerhouse in No. 8 Cal-State Fullerton this weekend.