Still Alive! No. 6 UC San Diego Headed Back to Azusa After Rallying in Winner-Take-All Meeting With Point Loma
LA JOLLA, Calif. - No. 6 University of California San Diego rallied to a victory for the third time in two days at home, grabbing the winner-take-all finale of the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship West Regional #2 over city rival Point Loma Nazarene University, 7-5, Saturday at Triton Ballpark.
Second-seeded UC San Diego had actually suffered a come-from-behind defeat earlier in the day to No. 3 seed Point Loma, 8-7, to even their best-of-three series and force the primetime rematch. The Tritons won the initial matchup, 11-4, on Friday night after setting up the series by eliminating sixth-seeded Montana State Billings.
With the split of the day, UC San Diego moved its overall record to 38-13. Point Loma had its remarkable 2019 campaign, its first under former Triton pitching coach Justin James, ended at 32-21.
The two-time reigning West Region champion Tritons get to continue in their quest to defend their back-to-back titles. They will head to Azusa this week for the best-of-three West Super Regional at top-seeded Azusa Pacific. The opener is set for 1 p.m. on Friday, May 24, with the second meeting at 12 p.m. on Saturday, May 25, and an if-necessary tilt to follow at 3:30 p.m. if the first two contests are split. APU completed its sweep through West Regional #1 over Cal Poly Pomona on Saturday, 19-2.
This will mark a third straight year that UC San Diego's run to the NCAA Championship has taken it through Azusa. The Tritons swept the previous incarnation of the six-team West Regional there in each of the past two seasons, including three victories over the host Cougars.
UC San Diego is making a sixth NCAA appearance in eight seasons under head coach Eric Newman. Remarkably, Newman's Tritons are one of the last two teams left standing in the West for the fifth straight time that they have participated, with runner-up efforts in 2014 and 2015, ahead of the last two West Region crowns.
The 8-7 setback to begin the day, snapped a 10-game West Regional win streak for UC San Diego. The Tritons had taken three straight meetings with the Sea Lions, all at the West Regional, in 2015, 2018, and Friday night.
Game One: PLNU 8, No. 6 UCSD 7
UC San Diego surrendered single tallies in the first and second, only to gain a 3-2 advantage through a three-run second. The Tritons got solo shots from corner outfielders R.J. Prince and Alex Athanacio, the fifth of the year for each, in the fourth and fifth, respectively, around a Sea Lion run in the fifth, for a 5-3 edge through six.
That's when things unraveled for the home side, however, as Point Loma struck for four in the seventh. The Sea Lions batted around and produced three hits while benefiting from three walks and three wild pitches.
The Tritons did threaten heavily in the ninth, in the bottom half as the designated home team, scoring twice and advancing the winning run to second as the bases were loaded in an 8-7 game, but a popout ended the game and necessitated another game.
Alex Eliopulos dropped an opposite-field single into left center with one away, Blake Baumgartner followed with a single, and Steven Schuknecht accepted a pinch-hit, six-pitch walk, to load the bases. With two away, Keenan Brigman drew a five-pitch walk to force Eliopulos home, and freshman Michael Fuhrman reached on a fielding error by shortstop Miguel Cazares, his second in the game, to make it 8-7. Cazares was then able to squeeze that final pop-up, however.
Sophomore right-hander Noah Conlon's very first pitch of the afternoon was driven over the right field wall by junior second baseman Travis Takata. Conlon's leadoff walk to Justin Ledgerwood was wiped out by a beautiful around-the-horn double play in the second, but Casey Dunlap tripled to right on the next pitch, and scored on John Balliet's opposite-field double to left center for a 2-0 edge for the visitors.
The Tritons' third began with a Cazares' first error, with the very able Sea Lion then also misjudging a hot shot by senior Christopher Schasteen two batters later that was ruled an RBI double. Brigman, who had singled through the left side in between, scored the run. Prince's shot in the fourth was to the opposite field in right, with all five of his home runs coming over a 17-game span. Athanancio's was pulled to left, both coming with one out. Point Loma's fifth-inning run came on senior Colby Kaneshiro's fourth double in two games against the Tritons.
The Sea Lions grabbed an insurance run in the ninth that proved crucial, as Brett O'Toole singled for openers, moved to second on a one-out walk to former Triton catcher and current PLNU graduate student Michael Palos, to third on a foulout, and scored n Takata's two-out single. Athanacio actually fired to catcher Nick Kitzmann to cut down Palos at the plate, but the damage had been done.
Game Two: No. 6 UCSD 7, PLNU 5
Both clubs staged rallied in the winner-take-all rematch.
UC San Diego, the designated visitor, raced out to a 3-0 lead in the initial frame through a leadoff Prince single, two-out RBI double to left center by Baumgartner, and titanic two-run home run to straightaway center by fellow redshirt sophomore Aaron Kim. Baumgartner had in fact himself achieved the rarity of a blast to that deepest part of the park, over 400 feet away, against Cal State Monterey Bay back on Feb. 16. Kim did it Saturday for his team-best 12th long ball of 2019. They are the only two known Tritons to have accomplished the feat during Newman’s tenure.
Point Loma got one run back in the third, and for the second time on the day, put a four-spot on UC San Diego, in the fifth. Things looked grim momentarily, but the Tritons were able to get one of those right back in the sixth to close back to within a single run at 5-4. Baumgartner singled on an 0-2 pitch for openers to the opposite field in right center. He was knocked off the bases, but Athanacio's one-out single put Tritons at the corners, and Brigman drove in Kim on a squeeze play.
Sophomore shortstop Shay Whitcomb, the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Most Valuable Player who was 0-for-8 on the day to that point, then roped his ninth home run of the year, off the pole on the left edge of the batter's eye in straightaway center, and over the wall. That knotted the score once more at 5-5.
UC San Diego went on to add two more in the inning off reliever Robert Ortiz III (2-4), who took the loss on the mound. Eliopulos walked and Baumgartner added another two-strike single to right. Kim worked a six-pitch walk to load the bases, and after a pitching change and strikeout, Brigman's RBI fielder’s choice to third base, with Dunlap being charged with an error, gave the home side a 6-5 edge. With two gone, redshirt sophomore Brandon Stewart, a defensive replacement in center field, navigated his way to a seven-pitch walk, taking three straight balls after falling behind, 1-2.
Stellar relief took care of the rest. Junior right-handed newcomer Luke Mattson (3-2) was given an important task and he came through, tossing up three zeroes in the sixth, seventh and eighth following the rough fifth, and rightfully picking up the winning decision. Fourth-year senior right-handed closer Kyle Lucke shut the door with a perfect ninth, collecting his ninth save. He needed just 10 pitches to register a flyout and two swinging strikeouts. The first was on Point Loma junior star Micah Pries on four pitches, and the latter on three tosses to pinch-hitter Jarret Lindsay to end it.
Mattson ducked around a one-out single in the sixth with a pair of swinging strikeouts and an inning-ending flyout by Pries, and provided the shutdown seventh in 1-2-3. There were two more strikeouts there, followed by an unassisted groundout to Baumgartner. Mattson erased another one-out single in the eighth.
Baumgartner reached base in all five plate appearances, finishing a perfect 4-for-4 with two doubles, a walk, two runs and an RBI for his fourth career four-hit game and second on the year.
Triton Notes: Alex Eliopulos started his 126th and 127th straight games, all at third base ... Eliopulos, first baseman Blake Baumgartner and shortstop Shay Whitcomb are the only Tritons to start all 51 games in 2019 ... Senior rightfielder R.J. Prince was in the leadoff spot for the 14th and 15th straight games.
About UC San Diego Athletics
With 30 national team championships, nearly 150 individual titles and the top student-athlete graduation rate among Division II institutions in the United States, the UC San Diego intercollegiate athletics program annually ranks as one of the most successful in the country. The Tritons sponsor 23 intercollegiate sport programs that compete on the NCAA Division I and II levels and, in summer 2020, will transition into full Division I status as a member of the Big West Conference. UC San Diego student-athletes exemplify the academic ideals of one of the world's preeminent institutions, graduating at an average rate of 91 percent. A total of 80 Tritons have earned Academic All-America honors, while 37 have earned prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships. In competition, more than 1,300 UC San Diego student-athletes have earned All-America honors.
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For complete coverage and information regarding UC San Diego Athletics, follow the Tritons online at UCSDtritons.com and through social media on Twitter (@UCSDtritons), Instagram (@ucsdtritons) and Facebook (UCSDtritons). For more information on UC San Diego Baseball, follow on Twitter (@UCSDbsb) and Instagram (@ucsd_baseball). Head coach Eric Newman is also on Twitter (@CoachEricNewman).