AZUSA, Calif. - A trio of arms and a huge late home run gave the 22nd-ranked University of California San Diego a 5-3 victory over California Baptist University to conclude the third day of the 2018 NCAA Division II Championship West Regional at Cougar Baseball Complex on Saturday night. Azusa Pacific University is serving as the host for a second straight year, with UC San Diego trying to defend its West crown.
Third-seeded UC San Diego, a winner now of a season-high 11 in a row and 21 of 23, improves to 41-15 overall. Fifth-seeded California Baptist sees its 2018 campaign end at 35-19, having gone an even 2-2 in the regional. The Lancers had staved off elimination in the day's first game, 17-10, ousting top seed Cal State Monterey Bay. The Tritons rallied from 6-0 and 7-1 deficits to defeat CBU on Friday night, 9-8, and send the Riverside club into that elimination tilt. It was a final Division II tournament contest for CBU, which is moving to Division I and the Western Athletic Conference.
UC San Diego knew it was playing second-seeded host Azusa Pacific on Monday, May 21, at 12 p.m., before taking the field on Saturday night, regardless of the result of its rematch with CBU. It was just a matter of whether the Tritons would have to win once Monday, or twice. Thanks to moving to a perfect 3-0 at the double-elimination event as its lone remaining unbeaten, they will have to beat APU just once. An if-necessary game would begin about half an hour after the end of the initial matchup.
CBU struck for a pair in the first on three hits, getting RBI singles from Andrew Bash with one away, and Harrison Spohn with two gone. Junior left-hander Preston Mott got Ryan Williams swinging to leave two more Lancers stranded.
UC San Diego had actually faced a 6-0 deficit after one frame on Friday against CBU, so it certainly was not overly discouraged by Saturday's initial turn.
The Tritons got one of those runs back right away in the second. Senior second baseman Justin Beck and redshirt sophomore leftfielder Keenan Brigman provided successive two-out singles, and Spohn was high with his throw to first on Blake Baumgartner's grounder, enabling Beck to sprint home.
Mott had little trouble retiring the first two batters in the home second, but three straight singles loaded the bases for Bash, the Pacific West Conference (PacWest) Player of the Year. Mott got him waving at a toss low in the zone for strike three.
UC San Diego took the lead through a two-run third. Brandon Stewart worked a six-pitch walk to lead off, and Tyler Durna sent a double off the first-base bag and down the line to put two men in scoring position for RBI leader Zander Clarke. Clarke fanned for the second time on the night against freshman right-hander Jorge Valerio, but junior third baseman Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) picked him up, driving a two-run double just fair down the right field line. Eliopulos in fact is second behind only Clarke in RBI on the team and in the league, with those two giving him 71.
Now sporting the advantage, Mott settled in, to say the least. His stretch of nine straight retired was snapped by a five-pitch walk with one away in the sixth. On came Blaine Jarvis. All the redshirt sophomore right-hander did was retire all eight hitters he faced, two each on strikeouts, groundouts and fly balls.
Mott (8-1) went 5.1 innings and allowed two runs on six hits and three walks. He struck out nine, one shy of his season and career best. Mott completed his first 1-2-3 frame in the fourth. He got Shay Whitcomb's help on the second out, as the true freshman shortstop went to his knees for a nice sliding stop toward the hole and got up to make the strong throw to Durna. A second consecutive perfect frame followed in the fifth with two easy groundouts around a strikeout. The Clovis native struck out the side around a one-out walk in the third.
Having done his job, Jarvis turned it over to true freshman right-hander Cameron Leonard with one gone in the eighth. The Hemet product registered the final five outs, two on strikes, to earn his third save. Remarkably, of Jarvis and Leonard's combined 37 pitches, 33 were strikes. Jarvis did not throw a ball in a clean eighth, throwing all eight in the zone to get a called third strike, lineout into Clarke's glove and groundout.
Leonard in fact made six tosses, and all were strikes, to get his first two outs in ending the eighth. The latter out was on fellow freshman Spohn, a swinging strikeout.
Around all of that, the one-run, 3-2 edge appeared very tenuous throughout, especially in an offensive ballpark conducive to the long ball. The bottom of the Triton order took care of much of that tension in the ninth. Brigman, in tremendous form of late, sent a leadoff single to center. Baumgartner then got the bunt sign, but almost popped his first attempt up to the catcher in foul territory and got away with it. He squared again on the second pitch and got his helmet knocked off, and then took a ball outside the zone before launching his fifth home run of the season to the opposite field in right on the 1-2 offering. It was 5-2, with big sighs of relief.
The Tritons needed every bit of that home run, as Leonard opened the ninth with a routine groundout to Eliopulos and a swinging strikeout. Billy Rockefeller then hammered his first home run of 2018 out to left, to determine the final score, but if not for Brigman and Baumgartner's heroics, it very well could have tied the game.
Leonard did not let that action get to him, instead inducing a first-pitch groundout to Whitcomb off the bat of leadoff man Luke Navigato.
All told, there was not a single base hit by either side, between the single by Whitcomb that followed the two-run Eliopulos double in the visitor third, and Brigman's leadoff single in that ninth.
Brigman finished 2-for-3 with a walk and run scored, running his average to a season-best .330. Eliopulos and Baumgartner each had their two RBI. Stewart was 1-for-3 with two walks and a run.
Eliopulos made a memorable defensive play for the second out of the sixth with a runner advancing to second. Pinch-hitter Kyle Oyama produced a high chooper that carried Eliopulos a slight bit into foul territory, but the area product stuck with and from his back foot, showed off the arm strength across the diamond. Durna got on his toes to make the difficult grab of the high throw.
True freshman right-hander Jorge Valerio (3-4) gave up three runs, two of them earned, on six hits and four walks over 5.1 frames. He struck out five. Tommy Bell accounted for two of the Lancers' seven hits, and scored one of their runs.
The Rockefeller shot notwithstanding, Saturday's game was somewhat reminiscent of another recent postseason victory for the Tritons, when they gave up a first-inning tally to Cal Poly Pomona in the finals of the conference tournament, before the pitching staff threw up eight zeros the rest of the way in a 5-1 decision on May 12.
Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 32-18 over its 10 NCAA Championship appearances, including a perfect 3-0 against CBU ... The Tritons are 21-9 outside of La Jolla, including a perfect 7-0 at neutral venues ... UC San Diego is 29-31 all-time against CBU ... The Tritons have won seven consecutive West Regional games as reigning champs ... Alex Eliopulos is the only Triton to start or even appear in all 56 games ... Brandon Stewart batted leadoff and Shay Whitcomb fifth for the 12th time this season and 11th game in a row ... Preston Mott drew his team-best 14th start of the season and 42nd of his career, now with exactly 14 in each of his first three years of college baseball ... Zander Clarke (83) and Eliopulos (71) remain 1-2 in the CCAA in RBI ... With one more home run and two more doubles, UC San Diego continues to lead the CCAA in both categories over Cal State Monterey Bay, 75-57 and 120-114, respectively, with CSUMB's season done ... The Tritons have hit at least one double in 23 straight games, with 71 total in this stretch ... With four walks, UC San Diego now leads the country in that category, surpassing Catawba, whose season is done ... Triton great Rick Nowak (1986-88), of the UC San Diego Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2017, was among those in attendance.
2018 NCAA Division II Championship West Regional
Cougar Baseball Complex • Azusa (Double Elimination)
Thursday, May 17
Game 2: No. 5 California Baptist 7, No. 2 Azusa Pacific 4 (15 innings)
Game 1: No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 10, No. 6 Chico State 7
Game 3: No. 3 UC San Diego 22, No. 4 Point Loma 3
Friday, May 18
Game 4: No. 2 Azusa Pacific 17, No. 6 Chico State 1 (Chico State eliminated)
Game 5: No. 4 Point Loma 13, No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 13-12
Game 6: No. 3 UC San Diego 9, No. 5 California Baptist 8
Saturday, May 19
Game 7: No. 5 California Baptist 17, No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 10 (CSUMB eliminated)
Game 8: No. 2 Azusa Pacific 10, No. 4 Point Loma 7 (PLNU eliminated)
Game 9: No. 3 UC San Diego 5, No. 5 California Baptist 3 (CBU eliminated)
Monday, May 21
Game 10: No. 3 UC San Diego vs. No. 2 Azusa Pacific, 12 p.m.
Game 11: No. 2 Azusa Pacific vs. No. 3 UC San Diego, 3:30 p.m., if necessary