LOS ANGELES - Fifth-year senior Troy Cruz (Chula Vista/Bonita Vista HS) put the No. 12 University of California San Diego baseball team on his back and finally turned their series-opening fortunes around in a comprehensive 9-3 defeat of Cal State LA at Reeder Field on Thursday night.
UC San Diego had dropped five successive California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) series starters and six of its last seven. Granted, it rallied to win five of those sets, but the Tritons undoubtedly were not fond of digging that initial hole. Led by Cruz from the outset, they did something about it.
With a fourth straight win, UC San Diego improved to 29-11 overall and 21-9 in the CCAA. Cal State LA, now a loser of eight in a row, fell to 20-21 overall and 13-18 in league play. The first-place Tritons went a full game up on idle Cal Poly Pomona in the CCAA South standings.
Cruz (5-2) fired a season-long 7.0 innings of shutout baseball on two hits and no walks, striking out five. The right-hander faced the minimum through 6.1 frames, thanks also in part to star first baseman Tyler Durna's steady glove. A one-out double by Isaac Dominguez halted that stretch, just eluding the diving Jack Larsen in right center, but he got a groundout, and then a called third strike on the outside corner on Sean Watkins, the CCAA's home run leader with 13, to cap his night at 92 pitches.
"Troy was awesome," exclaimed UCSD head coach Eric Newman. "He went out and executed his game plan really well. He and (pitching) Coach (Justin) James worked really hard this week, correcting some issues, so give those two a lot of credit."
"I felt confident today," added Cruz. "Coach James and Coach Newman put together a good plan and we made some adjustments with my mechanics this week. (Catcher Michael) Palos and our defense were solid all night. It's just nice to help the team win."
The Tritons threatened in the first with one-out singles by JD Hearn and Durna putting men at the corners, but junior right-hander Nate Adams dialed up a routine inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Durna's single extended his hit streak to 26 games.
Larsen sprinted into the gap in right center and jumped up against the wall to rob Golden Eagle leadoff man Nathan Navarrete of extra bases in the home half. Two groundouts gave Cruz a 1-2-3 frame.
The first three innings went by in a flash, in just under 30 minutes, with the wind picking up almost as drastically as the pace of play.
Durna worked the count full and drew a one-out walk in the fourth that snapped a string of eight straight turned away by Adams. He took second on a wild pitch, and scored the game's opening run on Alex Eliopulos' (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) double into the right field corner, the redshirt sophomore making up for having grounded into that twin killing in the first.
UCSD produced a three-run rally in the fifth, with everything coming after two outs were made. Nine-hole hitter Tyler Howsley sparked it with a single to center on a 3-2 toss. That triggered a pitching change, as Adams doesn't typically go very deep into a contest for Cal State LA. Reliever Holden Berger's first offering skipped through his catcher's legs, allowing Howsley to jog to second. Back at the top of the order, Larsen ultimately accepted the four-pitch walk. A third straight senior, Hearn, came through in the clutch, going opposite field through the right side with a 3-2 pitch to score Howsley. Hearn actually wound up at second on the play. Durna then skipped a two-run single just through the second baseman for a 4-0 lead.
While that offense was going on, Cruz was on fire. He set down the first 13 Cal State LA batters in order on eight groundouts, three strikeouts and two flyouts. With one away in the fifth, Jorge Garcia finally hit a ball that was narrowly too tall for Hearn as a single. It did not fluster Cruz in any way, however. Moments later, Angel Sanchez sent a hot shot down the first base line, and the Triton hurler got a big assist from his first baseman who can do virtually no wrong at the moment, as Durna leapt up to snare it and stepped on the bag for the inning-ending lineout double play.
UCSD added a pair in the seventh, again almost exclusively coming with two outs. Larsen drew a one-out walk and moved to second after a second flyout. Durna stayed red hot, fouling off two 3-2 offerings during an eight-pitch at-bat before belting an RBI double that went halfway up the wall in right center. It looked off the bat like it could be gone, but that perhaps the wind knocked it down. Eliopulos then roped an RBI single up the middle to make it a 6-0 advantage for the visitors.
Redshirt freshman right-hander Blaine Jarvis, in his first appearance since April 9, breezed through the eighth via three groundouts on eight tosses.
The Tritons banked three final tallies in the ninth, loading the bases with no outs on a single, hit-by-pitch and walk, before a one-out walk to Brandon Shirley forced Larsen in. A pitching change preceded a pinch-hit, opposite-field, two-run single through the left side by redshirt junior Tim White.
Cal State LA got on the scoreboard and answered those three runs in its last turn, though the final out was made at third as Watkins tried to stretch a two-run double into a triple, Shirley throwing in to Palos, who relayed to Hearn to place the tag. It marked a team-best fifth outfield assist on the year for Shirley.
Durna reached base in all five plate appearances, finishing 3-for-3 with two walks, a double, three runs scored and three RBI. He battled back from a 1-2 deficit and took his free base in the ninth to load the bags. Eliopulos was 2-for-5 with a double and two RBI, and Larsen 1-for-3 with two walks and three runs. Eight of the Tritons' nine runs came from the top three in the order, as Hearn added a pair.
Adams (0-2) gave up two runs on four hits and one walk over 4.2 innings. He had one strikeout. Adams retired the Tritons in order in the second, getting a sliding catch in the gap by Watkins in right for the second out, and then again in the third.
UCSD and Cal State LA continue their four-game series with another primetime affair in Los Angeles on Friday night, April 28. First pitch at Reeder Field is again set for 6 p.m.
Triton Notes: Tyler Howsley extended his consecutive games played streak to 149 dating back to the 2015 opener ... Jack Larsen has appeared in 104 straight games, all of them starts ... JD Hearn has appeared in 71 games in a row, all of them starts ... Hearn, Howsley and Larsen are the only Tritons to appear in all 40 games this season ... Larsen was in the leadoff spot for the fourth time in his career, all coming this month ... Tyler Durna extended his team-best streaks to 31 straight games reaching base and 26 with a hit ... The hit streak is a record for the program's NCAA Division II era (since 2001) ... Durna extended the hit streak with a single in his first at-bat for the third game in a row ... Durna continues to lead the CCAA with his .431 average ... Troy Cruz made his second start of the year, coming in back-to-back series openers on the road, and 32nd of his career ... Alex Eliopulos' fourth-inning double was his eighth, moving him into a tie with Hearn for the team lead ... Durna's seventh-inning double was his seventh, with his three RBI pushing his season total over the 30 mark to 31 ... Cruz's outing was his longest since he went 8.0 innings at Sonoma State on March 29, 2015 ... Larsen himself extended his streaks to 10 games with a hit and 22 reaching base ... Durna has reached base in eight straight plate appearances over the past two games, via one double, four singles and three walks.