LA JOLLA, Calif. - Seventh-ranked University of California San Diego scored four times in the seventh to break open a close 1-0 game, and hung on for dear life through a rough ninth to take a 6-4 victory over 14th-ranked rival Cal Poly Pomona Friday afternoon at Triton Ballpark.
The result made a deserved winner out of junior left-hander Preston Mott (3-0), who twirled seven shutout innings and struck out a career-high 10, scattering three singles and a walk. It also evened up the four-game California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) series at 1-1, after CPP had taken an 8-3 decision in La Jolla on Thursday night.
The Tritons earned their 10th win of 2018 and improved to 10-5 overall and 6-4 in the CCAA. CPP fell to 7-5 overall and 4-2 in league play, still with a share of first place. The teams have combined for the last three NCAA Division II West Region titles, with UCSD the defending champion, after CPP had notched the 2015 and 2016 trophies.
Junior Zander Clarke's two-run home run capped the four-run seventh, before senior Justin Beck added a solo shot in the eighth. It was a first long ball as a Triton for the first-year transfer out of San José State.
Mott was brilliant, matching the longest outing of his career and needing just 81 pitches over the seven frames to register 10 punch-outs, seven of them swinging. After a 1-2-3 first on a flyout and two groundouts, the latter a first-pitch comebacker, he struck out the side in the second and sixth, neither time in order. That latter frame saw leadoff man Drew Cowley open with a single and advance to second on a wild pitch, still with nobody away with the meat of the Bronco order due up in a 0-0 game. Mott promptly got senior catcher Cody Martin swinging, and then absolutely froze Nic Hernandez and Brennan McKenzie, the last two CCAA Freshmen of the Year, on called third strikes to strand Cowley at second.
The Tritons turned around and broke the scoreless deadlock after senior right-hander Ryan Alsworth had done his part in the pitchers' duel with matching zeros through five. With one out, freshman shortstop Shay Whitcomb singled to left. After reigning CCAA Player of the Week Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) flew out, Clarke and Blake Baumgartner walked to load the bases, and Steven Schuknecht came up clutch by negotiating a free pass of his own for a 1-0 edge. Both Clarke and Baumgartner went down 0-2 in the count before taking four straight outside the zone.
The big seventh began with another walk, this one to catcher Nick Kitzmann. Beck laid down the sacrifice, but new pitcher Brian Conley threw too high for his first baseman, Hernandez, and both Tritons were safe. The play went down still as a sacrifice, with an error on Conley. That enabled UC San Diego head coach Eric Newman to go back to the bunt with his No. 9 hitter, Brandon Stewart, who did his job to move both teammates into scoring position. Back to the top of the order, Whitcomb reached out and dropped a two-run single into shallow left center for 3-0. Following another Eliopulos flyout, Clarke deposited a 1-0 pitch over the wall in left.
The teams traded single tallies in the eighth. CPP's came via two-out rally after sophomore right-hander Ted Stuka had taken over for Mott and fanned the first two batters he faced. Martin was plunked, and two singles, the latter by McKenzie, scored him. UCSD's run came on Beck's two-out shot over the scoreboard in right center.
In the ninth, the Tritons didn't help themselves at all with two costly errors, the first of them to put leadoff man Bryce Graddy on first. A pinch-hit single and pinch-hit walk bookended a groundout and filled the bags. Newman went from Stuka to Cameron Kurz (Encinitas/La Costa Canyon HS), and the redshirt junior right-hander dialed up a seemingly-routine 6-4-3 game-ending double play, only for the second error to come, scoring two and making for an even nervier finish. Another pinch-hit, RBI single later, it was 6-4 with Broncos at first and second. That's when Kurz got Logan Gopperton, who had replaced Hernandez at first base to begin the home eighth, to fly out to left center, where Brandon Stewart had just moved over from center. It was not an easy play, but Stewart got there and made it. Kurz then got McKenzie waving at a 3-2 offering for his team-leading third save.
Beck was 1-for-3 with his home run, sacrifice, two runs and one RBI. Whitcomb finished 3-or-4 with a double, two runs and two RBI. Clarke went 1-for-3 with his home run, a walk, run scored and two RBI of his own.
Alsworth (2-1) took his first loss, allowing a run on three hits and three walks over 6.0 innings. The three walks in succession in the sixth were his only ones of the afternoon. He fanned six. Hernandez was 2-for-4 before his exit.
The series now shifts north to Scolinos Field in Pomona, to be concluded with a doubleheader, but rather than taking place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, the twin bill was moved late Friday night, to Sunday, March 4, due to expected adverse weather in the area. First pitch is now set for 1 p.m., with the nightcap still of the shortened seven-inning variety. It marks the start of UCSD's season-long 10-game road stretch.
Triton Notes: Redshirt freshman Blake Baumgartner batted cleanup for the third game in a row ... Junior Tyler Durna pinch-hit for Baumgartner in the seventh inning and singled through the right side before immediately being run for, having missed the previous five games in their entirety due to an injury suffered late in the series finale with San Francisco State on Feb. 18 ... Keenan Brigman's pinch-run, seventh-inning stolen base was his first of the year ... UC San Diego is the first team in the CCAA to reach 10 wins on the season ... The Tritons continue to lead the league with 16 home runs ... Justin Flatt, Jack Larsen and Brandon Shirley, three seniors on the 2017 West Region championship and national runner-up team, were on hand, with Flatt visiting from Georgetown graduate school, and Larsen working out on campus ahead of his March 10 departure for Arizona in advance of his first full season of professional baseball as a member of the Seattle Mariners organization.