In what is shaping up to be head coach Mike Gillespie’s worst season at the helm for the UC Irvine baseball team (17-28, 4-11), the woes continued this past weekend at Anteater Ballpark. They welcomed Big West foe CSUN (23-25, 10-8), and all three games featured one of the teams collapsing late in the game, but the breakdowns plagued the ‘Eaters more often. The Matadors were able to erase a four-run deficit in the first game and eventually come back to win 6-5 in extra innings, before UCI turned the tables and capitalized on CSUN’s crunch time mistakes on Saturday en route to an 8-4 triumph. The rubber match ultimately went the Matadors’ way, as they inched ahead late to take a 2-1 victory. However, junior Keston Hiura has remained a bright spot for the struggling ‘Eater team, as the DH entered the series first in the nation in on-base percentage and eleventh in batting average. Hiura ended up reaching base in his first 10 plate appearances of the series, putting him in contention for a national batting title and bolstering his already impressive .544 OBP clip.
The later innings have not been kind to the ‘Eaters this season, as they often mark the point where UCI’s bats shut down and the opposing team creeps back into the game. Leading 5-1 in the eighth inning, UCI began to unravel and eventually allowed CSUN to tie before the Matadors plated the winning run in the tenth frame to take the opener 6-5.
Key errors in the field also led to the ‘Eaters’ demise, as only one of the six runs they allowed showed up as an earned run on the scorecard.
Junior starter Louis Raymond has shown he can go deep into games, lasting 7.2 innings on Friday after back-to-back eighth-inning starts in his last two outings. Raymond was charged with zero earned runs but let in five in the disastrous eighth.
An error allowed the Matadors’ leadoff hitter to reach base, and with two outs later in the inning junior Kevin Riley clubbed his eighth home run of the season, a three-run shot to bring CSUN within one. A double and an RBI-single later, the game was tied and would head to extras.
Senior closer Calvin Faucher could not escape a two-out, bases loaded jam in the tenth and hit a batter to allow the go-ahead run to score.
The game started promising for UCI, and Hiura led the way offensively with three-hits and two free passes as he reached base all five times he came to bat, scoring twice.
All RBIs for the ‘Eaters came with two down in the inning, as juniors Ryan Fitzpatrick and Parker Coss each registered multi-RBI games, but could not score beyond the sixth inning and allowed CSUN to take the victory 6-5.
With redemption on their minds, the ‘Eaters kept their cool late in Saturday’s game to come from behind and even the series with an 8-4 win at the expense of some Matador mistakes.
Despite being on the wrong end of the collapse the night before, UCI was able to capitalize on the opportunity to take control after CSUN left the door open.
“This time it was their turn to break down,” said Gillespie, “They just offered us an opportunity to get back in it. Base on balls, wild pitches, couple hits, we got a nice squeeze play done.”
The squeeze was a beautiful piece of managerial prowess, and was executed superbly by the ‘Eater baserunners in an eighth inning that swung the momentum entirely in the home team’s favor.
Three of the first four batters of the inning drew walks to load the bases with one out, and a passed ball scored freshman Christian Koss. Hiura was up next and was intentionally walked for the third time in the game, a UCI record, all three times with runners on second and third.
“I enjoy swinging the bat,” said Hiura, “I want the bat in my hands with guys in scoring position but I trust the guys behind me to pick me up and drive us in. It’s not something I necessarily like but I’ll take a walk any day.”
The ‘Eaters were able to maximize the damage even after CSUN gave Hiura the Barry Bonds treatment as next man up senior Adam Alcantara connected for an RBI-single. Another passed ball scored freshman Ryan Johnston before Coss laid down the picture-perfect suicide squeeze. Hiura came around to score and Alcantara followed when nobody was back covering home plate, bringing the UCI lead to 8-4.
Freshman reliever Andre Pallante sealed the victory in the ninth, and was credited with the win after sophomore Jordan Bocko had a quality start for the ‘Eaters going six innings and allowing three earned.
Despite the collapse on Friday, UCI was able to tie up the series, an effort Gillespie credits with the resilience and perseverance of his bunch.
“Our players know that what’s really critical to us is that we keep playing,” said Gillespie, “Nobody’s in denial about the year that we’ve had, nobody is not disappointed. But I always am impressed with teams when it comes to the end of the year when they’ve had a bad year that are still working at it, still playing, and I think our guys are.”
The ‘Eaters are too far back in the standings to win the Big West at this point, but it won’t stop them from trying to win as much as they can and improving as a squad before the season’s end.
“In the situation that were in, any opportunity to win is important,” said Gillespie, “Any game that you could and in fact do win is significant regardless of what our record is. I think everybody understands that, lets win one in a row about 10 times and have some fun at the end of the year.”
The late-game mishaps fell with the ‘Eaters once again as a passed ball allowed the winning run to score for the Matadors in the eighth inning, giving CSUN the 2-1 series-clinching victory.
A true pitchers’ duel, the starters for both teams lasted eight innings and gave up an earned run apiece.
Freshman Cole Spear took the mound for UCI, giving up only five hits and striking out three over 103 pitches. Matador senior Samuel Meyers kept the ‘Eaters under control, completing his eight innings of work with a tidy 85 pitches, striking out eight and allowing only four hits and no walks.
CSUN was able to hit Spear for the only earned run in the first inning on some textbook smallball, combining a walk, a steal, a productive groundball out and a sac fly to score the leadoff man and take the 1-0 lead.
The ‘Eaters struck back in the second via a Fitzpatrick solo home run, but neither team was able to add to their lead until the eighth.
With a runner on third and two outs, a passed ball allowed the runner to score and the Matadors to jump ahead. Senior Conner O’Neil tallied his seventh save of the season, inducing three consecutive groundouts from the ‘Eaters to take the series.
UCI is still looking for its first Big West series win, and will have three more chances in the series against conference competition. Their next test will be hosting San Diego at home on Tuesday, before they head out to take on conference foe Hawaii the following weekend.