GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Fourth-ranked University of California San Diego produced a pair of three-run frames and followed the lead of fifth-year senior right-hander Troy Cruz in a complete-game masterpiece, defeating No. 16 St. Thomas Aquinas College, 7-3, in an elimination semifinal at the 2017 NCAA Division II Baseball Championship Saturday night inside AirHogs Stadium.
UC San Diego, the designated visitor, improved to 44-18 on the season. St. Thomas Aquinas, the East Region champion from Sparkill, N.Y., finished its season at 44-17.
It was a true rubber game, as the teams had met twice already this week. The Tritons dropped a difficult 6-5 decision in 12 innings to the Spartans in both sides' opener last Sunday, but blanked STAC 10-0 on Thursday evening to remain alive and force a decider to determine the second national finalist.
UCSD (4-1) advances into Championship Sunday, needing to beat No. 6 West Chester (Pa.) University (3-0) twice. The last day had to be pushed from Saturday due to Friday's storms. WCU edged No. 2 Colorado Mesa, 1-0, late Thursday to move into the final round as the lone unbeaten team left in the tournament. The first game is slated to begin at 10 a.m. PT, weather pending, with the if-necessary, winner-take-all tilt to follow should the Tritons win a fifth straight elimination contest in six days.
Cruz (9-2) allowed three runs on eight hits and two walks over 9.0 innings. He struck out a career-high 11, with four of them coming as the third out over the first five frames, and another to end the eighth. The Chula Vista product and graduate of Bonita Vista High School actually fanned at least one Spartan in every inning but the ninth, and struck out the side around a leadoff single and a two-out RBI double. It marked a second complete-game performance for Cruz in this NCAA Championship, having opened the West Regional with one over Dixie State, 5-2.
The game actually began as scheduled but with just a slight weather delay back on Friday afternoon, with a five-pitch walk and two-strike single to center by Triton senior outfielders Jack Larsen and Brandon Shirley, respectively. Tyler Durna then fouled off three two-strike pitches before being called out to conclude a nine-pitch at-bat, with Larsen and Shirley both advancing during that time on a passed ball. Seconds after Durna reached the dugout, play was halted for a lightning delay.
Within 30 minutes, a severe storm rolled through the area, bringing heavy rain, thunder and lightning, and even hail. The decision was made to resume at 10 a.m. local time on Saturday morning, but the radar didn't look any better, so it was pushed back further to a primetime resumption of 7 p.m. CT.
When play picked up Saturday, Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) flew out to right, with Larsen not testing the arm of Giovanni Dingcong. Shirley didn't actually get that memo and was more than halfway to third, but STAC catcher Cris Ruiz saw fit only to run Larsen back and not risk a throw to get Shirley. That gave JD Hearn a chance, but his liner went straight into the glove of third baseman Greg Dawber as UCSD failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity, coming over about 28 hours, of men at second and third and nobody out.
In a rematch of Sunday's extra-inning opening meeting in which neither ace figured in the decision, redshirt senior right-hander Troy Cruz (Chula Vista/Bonita Vista HS) got through a perfect first, handling an easy comebacker before getting a hard flyout right to Larsen and a called third strike.
Junior All-American right-hander Frankie Moscatiello saw successive singles against him to begin the second from Triton freshmen Keenan Brigman and Chad Crosbie, but Michael Palos' sacrifice attempt was too hard, and Brigman was cut down. Tyler Howsley then battled back from a 1-2 deficit and took a 3-2 pitch high from Moscatiello to bring up the top of the order and Larsen with the bases full and just one away. Larsen lifted a sacrifice fly to Dingcong for the game's first tally, with Palos and Howsley also advancing.
Howsley was in fact halfway to second when the ball was caught, and he went back and tagged up, and his advancement was huge, as on a 1-1 pitch, Shirley roped an opposite-field single to right that enabled both teammates to score for a 3-0 lead.
Cruz came right back out and turned in a nine-pitch frame, with a flyout to Larsen, groundout to Eliopulos, and swinging strikeout. On the middle out, Durna once again flashed the leather that Triton fans have seen all year, picking up his third baseman with the incredible scoop of the short-hopped throw.
STAC pulled one back in the third with a one-out single that looped just over the leaping reach of Howsley, and then an RBI double by Ruiz in the nine hole. Joseph Peña at the top of the order tried to bunt his way on, but Cruz smartly left it for Eliopulos to make the tough out at first, and then Cruz got Nicholas Lucchese waving at strike three to keep Ruiz stranded at third.
The fourth began with Crosbie drawing a four-pitch walk and Palos knocking an opposite-field single into right. Howsley's bunt attempt was caught nicely by first baseman Bobby Morse, however, and Larsen struck out as Moscatiello's final batter. Shirley worked an eight-pitch walk off the new guy, Chad Sinko, fouling off two 2-2 tosses, to fill the bags. Durna then put a charge into one to right, but Dingcong leapt up near the wall to make the grab.
After Cruz got Anthony Shkrelja swinging to begin the home fourth, Dingcong sent a 2-0 offering over the wall in left for his school-record 20th home run of the season and second this week off of Cruz, to pull the Spartans within a single run at 3-2. Cruz then got Morse looking, issued his first walk, and got the fielder's choice groundout.
UCSD was unable to do anything with Eliopulos beating out an infield single to start the fifth, as a foulout, strikeout, and hard outfield lineout by Crosbie stranded him.
For the second out of the home half, Ruiz lifted a high foul ball behind the plate and toward first. Palos was searching for it, but Durna charged over and called him off, making the catch as the two nearly collided. A two-out single through the left side was made meaningless by a sixth Cruz strikeout.
Palos took a 3-2 pitch in the dirt and walked to open the sixth. This time, Howsley's bunt was perfect. Sinko intentionally walked Larsen. Shirley then poked a first-pitch single through the left side to load the bases. Durna, hitting with the bags full for the second straight at-bat. Chris Pennell came on and hit Durna with his first pitch, and then Eliopulos after throwing a strike. The junior right-hander then walked Hearn on five tosses, and just like that it was 6-2 UCSD. Back-to-back strikeouts ended the rally.
The three-run uprising on a single hit, three walks and two hit-by-pitches, was sweet revenge for the Tritons, who surrendered three scores in Sunday's gut-wrenching 12th on zero hits, five walks, one error and a wild pitch.
Cruz took care of business, however, in the bottom half, getting two flyouts to Shirley around his seventh strikeout, swinging on Dingcong, of all people. He got him swinging in each of his final two plate appearances after the solo blast.
A leadoff Palos single in the seventh was squandered, and Cruz walked Michael Morgan to start the bottom for his first leadoff runner, but froze Juan Adorno for strike three. A groundout preceded a Ruiz single up the middle to put Spartans on the corners. Hearn put forth extraordinary effort to get over behind the bag and corral the ball before it got all the way through, holding Morgan at third. Cruz fell behind 3-1 to Peña, before the junior shortstop bounced out harmlessly and unassisted to Durna at first.
The Tritons went down in order in the eighth and Lucchese led off the STAC portion with a single inside the first base line. Cruz threw a slider past Shkrelja for strike three and out one, and after a wild pitch, got Dingcong chasing again. Morse drilled an RBI double into the right field corner that just evaded a sprinting Larsen, but Cruz was game and struck out a third batter to cap the frame, Morgan looking.
A two-out rally from the bottom of the order gave UCSD one last enormous insurance run in the ninth. Palos singled up the middle and notched his first college steal before a third Spartan pitching change. Howsley's hot shot caromed off Dawber at third and bounded toward center field, allowing Palos to score easily for 7-3.
Cruz, never coming out of the game at that stage, registered two flyouts and a groundout around a two-out Ruiz single. Larsen's grab in right sealed the triumph.
Shirley finished 3-for-4 with two walks, a run and two RBI. Palos was 3-for-4 with a walk, steal and three runs. The three hits and three runs were career bests for the Monterey Park native, who is 5-for-10 with six walks, five runs and three RBI since coming off the bench against Quincy on Tuesday. Howsley went 1-for-3 with a walk, sacrifice, run, RBI and just his second steal in four tries this year. Five of the seven Triton runs came from the bottom three hitters in the order.
UCSD drew 10 walks after coaxing 11 on Thursday against the Spartans. Three were by Larsen, two of them intentional, to give him 143 for his career, breaking the program standard previously held by Matt Cantele (2006-09) at 142.
Moscatiello (9-2) went 3.2 innings for STAC and gave up three runs on five hits and four walks, fanning three. He worked around a two-out walk in the third. Ruiz was 3-for-4 with a double and RBI. Morgan walked twice.
Cruz must have at least had the thought cross his mind last Sunday, that he had seen the mound for the final time in a storied UCSD career. After turning in seven strong innings, he watched the Tritons fall 6-5 in 12 to STAC. On Tuesday, they trailed 7-1 to Quincy midway through the fourth.
The rest, however, as they say, is history, as UCSD has outscored opponents 37-10 since in winning four consecutive elimination games. Thus enabled a 37th and final start, and what likely now was his last collegiate appearance, Cruz was better than ever, cementing his legacy as a competitor and Triton. Not only did he propel his team into Sunday, but he also ensured that fellow Chula Vista product and roommate, Adrian Orozco (9-0, 3.21 ERA), will see the mound one final time for UCSD. Orozco, himself a fifth-year senior, will start Sunday's first game, coming off of his only start all year, out of a team-best 15, in which he did not get into the sixth.
Triton Notes: UCSD is 29-17 over nine NCAA Division II Championship appearances, including 15-7 in its fourth trip under head coach Eric Newman ... The Tritons are 9-4 at the D-II finals ... UCSD is 2-1 all-time against St. Thomas Aquinas, all three meetings coming at this NCAA Championship ... Tyler Howsley extended his consecutive games played streak to 171 dating back to the 2015 opener ... Jack Larsen has appeared in 126 straight games, all of them starts ... JD Hearn has appeared in 93 games in a row, all of them starts ... Hearn, Howsley and Larsen are the only Tritons to appear in all 62 games this season, with only Hearn and Larsen starting each ... Troy Cruz drew his seventh start of the season and 37th of his Triton career ... Larsen's leadoff walk in the first on Friday extended his reached-base streak to 44 games, a program record for the NCAA Division II era (since 2001), besting 41-gamers by Jeff Riddle (2004) and current teammate Tyler Durna earlier this season ... Larsen's three walks gave him 143 for his career, a new UCSD all-time record, surpassing Matt Cantele's (2006-09) 142 ... Brandon Shirley's first-inning single on Friday extended his career-best hit streak to 14 games ... Howsley's sixth-inning sacrifice was his team-best 16th of the season and 37th of his career, a record for the program's Division II era ... The Tritons have played 12 consecutive games against nationally-ranked opponents (10-2), including six in the top 10 (5-1), and are 12-4 against ranked foes in 2017 ... UCSD is 7-1 in elimination games this postseason ... Tuesday's result marked career win No. 300 for head coach Eric Newman, who is now 303-196 for his nine years overall and 208-124 at UCSD ... UCSD has four complete-game pitching efforts in the last nine contests after having none to that point ... The Tritons have twice now gone back-to-back with their complete games, with Kyle Goodbrand tossing a five-hit shutout against STAC on Thursday, and Cruz and Adrian Orozco previously having accomplished the feat to begin the West Regional in Azusa, May 18-19 ... It was a second straight game for the Tritons with double-digit walks against STAC, with 10 tonight after 11 on Thursday, and the fourth for UCSD in 2017, all coming since May 4 ... Cruz posted just the third double-digit strikeout performance by a Triton this year, the other two by Orozco (12, 11) ... Five times this season, UCSD had dropped the first game of a series, only to come back and win the set, and this week, the Tritons dropped Sunday's first meeting with STAC, before reversing that result on Thursday and Saturday.
2017 NCAA Division II Baseball Championship Results/Schedule
Saturday, May 27
Game 1 - West Chester 9, North Georgia 4
Game 2 - Lindenwood 4, Delta State 0
Sunday, May 28
Game 3 - St. Thomas Aquinas 6, UC San Diego 5 (12)
Game 4 - Colorado Mesa 10, Quincy 3
Monday, May 29
Game 5 - Delta State 4, North Georgia 0 (UNG eliminated)
Game 6 - West Chester 5, Lindenwood 2
Tuesday, May 30
Game 7 - UC San Diego 10, Quincy 8 (QU eliminated)
Game 8 - St. Thomas Aquinas 3, Colorado Mesa 2 (10)
Wednesday, May 31
Game 9 - UC San Diego 11, Lindenwood 6 (LU eliminated)
Game 10 - Colorado Mesa 6, Delta State 2 (DSU eliminated)
Thursday, June 1
Game 11 - UC San Diego 10, St. Thomas Aquinas 0
Game 12 - West Chester 1, Colorado Mesa 0 (CMU eliminated)
Friday, June 2
Game 13 - St. Thomas Aquinas vs. UC San Diego (PPD - weather)
Saturday, June 3
Game 13 - UC San Diego 7, St. Thomas Aquinas 3 (STAC eliminated)
Sunday, June 4
Game 14 - UC San Diego vs. West Chester, 10 a.m. PT
Game 15 - West Chester vs. UC San Diego, TBD (if necessary)