STOCKTON, Calif. - The No. 25 University of California San Diego baseball team did what it's done all year, and rode the long ball to victory to remain in the winner's bracket of the 2018 California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Championship Thursday night at Banner Island Ballpark.
Epic two-run blasts by first-year Tritons Justin Beck and Zander Clarke backed a pitching performance predicated on getting out of some jams, for a 5-2 triumph over rival Chico State, the two-time defending CCAA tournament champion.
The two shots gave UC San Diego 69 home runs on the year, far and away the top mark in the conference, and now just three off the program record of 72 set in 2007. For Clarke, the CCAA Most Valuable Player, it was a team-best 15th, while Beck belted his ninth. Senior closer Cameron Kurz shut the door with a perfect six-out save.
With a sixth consecutive win, second-seeded UC San Diego improved to 36-15 overall on the year. Third-seeded Chico State dropped to 31-21. The Wildcats had taken the regular-season set, three games to one at home, to inflict the Tritons' lone series loss.
UC San Diego remains in the winner's bracket and will sit back all day on Friday, May 11, and await the results of two elimination games. The Tritons will play the survivor of Chico State's 11 a.m. matchup with top seed Cal State Monterey Bay, which fell 12-5 to Cal Poly Pomona in Thursday's middle game. All remaining tournament contests are broadcast on Eleven Sports USA and online at baosn.tv, free of charge.
Both teams were higher-seeded home sides on Wednesday, which prompted a coin flip at the conclusion of play, which Chico State won.
After a perfect initial frame for Wildcat sophomore left-hander Grant Larson, a San Diego product, the home half began with some intrigue. Kyle Blakeman smacked a 1-1 pitch deep to right center, and the ball appeared to come back off the railing just above where the wall technically ends. It was initially ruled a double, and stayed that way after the four umpires got together to discuss. A first-pitch flyout was followed by a groundout that moved Blakeman to third. Junior left-hander Preston Mott then put a three-pitch strikeout on Alex DeVito, the latter two on swings he couldn't check.
A leadoff Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) single in the second was wiped out by a first-pitch 4-6-3 double play. Justin Beck then doubled off the wall in left center, but a groundout kept him there.
The first walk of the contest opened the home second. Tyler Stofiel came up with a two-out, two-strike single before No. 9 hitter Dustin Miller bounced out to first base.
Blake Baumgartner stroked a two-strike single to the opposite field in right to begin the third. After a strikeout and a fielder's choice groundout, Brandon Stewart stole second while Tyler Durna battled back from a 1-2 deficit to draw a six-pitch walk. Larson fanned Clarke, although it looked to be a pretty tough call on a third-strike check swing.
Chico State put its leadoff man on base in the home half for the third straight frame, second in a row via walk. Louie Canjura bunted Blakeman to second. A flyout to right center advanced him to third, and an ensuing first-pitch flyout stranded the senior rightfielder at third for the second time on the night.
Beck, not satisfied with the double in his first at-bat, lifted a titanic shot deep into the Stockton night in right, to break the scoreless deadlock in the fourth. It followed a sharp, one-out single to left by Shay Whitcomb, putting the Tritons up 2-0.
Mott walked the bases full, starting again with the leadoff man, around an infield popout and flyout, and exited in favor of Kyle Lucke to face Blakeman. Blakeman worked the count full and fouled off a pair of 3-2 offerings, before the big junior right-hander got him waving at a high strike to keep the 2-0 edge intact.
Fresh off the shutdown inning in the most difficult way possible, UC San Diego doubled its advantage via two-out rally, and again the long ball. Durna fouled off a 3-2 toss by Larson before rolling an opposite-field single, bringing up, that man Clarke. The slugger took a pitch low and outside and hammered it into the Triton bullpen in left center, for his second in as many days of the tournament.
Lucke came back out and finally retired the leadoff man for the first time on the night, getting Canjura to fly out harmlessly to Keenan Brigman in left.
Chico State halved the deficit with a pair of two-out RBI hits in the sixth. Lucke almost got away with walking the leadoff man again, by getting a punch-out and flyout, but Miller doubled into the gap in right center to score Turner Olson and chase Lucke. Blakeman greeted redshirt sophomore right-hander Blaine Jarvis with a first-pitch, RBI single right back up the middle for 4-2. A strikeout ended the inning.
In the seventh, Jarvis got a groundout to Whitcomb at short, and Durna ranged well down the right field line to corral a high foul ball. A two-out walk was inconsequential as Jarvis got Olson to swing through.
A four-pitch walk to Clarke led off the eighth. Eliopulos flew out to the warning track in right. Clarke then stole second, and rumbled all the way over to third on the throwing error by Stofiel the catcher. With the count 0-2 to Whitcomb, a passed ball enabled Clarke to come home with the unearned insurance score.
Kurz (Encinitas/La Costa Canyon HS) took over for the final six outs, and got himself halfway there by turning in the Tritons' first perfect frame of the night on a swinging strikeout, easy groundout and wicked called third strike.
Kurz also went 1-2-3 in the ninth, with a lineout right into Whitcomb's glove at short, and back-to-back swinging strikeouts, the latter on three pitches to 2017 CCAA Player of the Year Cameron Santos to end it for his ninth save. Of 29 pitches by Kurz, 21 went for strikes. Nothing left the infield.
For Kurz, it was career save No. 14, which equals the all-time program standard, set in one season in 2008 by Keith Noe.
Mott went 3.2 innings and allowed no runs on two hits and career-high five walks, striking out two. Lucke went 2.0 frames with two runs on two hits, one walk, and three strikeouts.
Clarke was 1-for-3 with the home run, a walk, two runs scored, two RBI and a steal. Beck finished 2-for-4 with a double, home run, run and two RBI. Brigman also went 2-for-4. Durna and Whitcomb each had one hit and one run.
Larson (6-3) gave up four runs on nine hits and one walk over 6.0 frames. He struck out two. Blakeman had two of just five hits for Chico State, though senior RJ Hassey did draw three of the 'Cats' seven walks.
The Tritons were able to exact a measure of revenge for last year's winner-take-all CCAA Championship final on May 13, when Larson tossed five effective innings (5 H, R, BB, 6 SO) for his first collegiate win.
Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 31-18 over its 14 CCAA Championship appearances, including 5-4 against Chico State ... The Tritons are 16-9 away from home in 2018 ... Alex Eliopulos is the only Triton to start or even appear in all 51 games ... Brandon Stewart batted leadoff and Shay Whitcomb fifth for the seventh time this season and sixth game in a row ... Preston Mott drew his team-best 13th mound start ... Justin Beck's second-inning double was his 11th ... Stewart's third-inning steal was his team-best 10th on 11 tries ... With two more home runs, UC San Diego increased its league-leading season total to 69, now just three from matching the school record from 2007, and 23 clear of CSUMB (46) in second ... Clarke (70) and Eliopulos (64) remain 1-2 in the CCAA in RBI ... The Tritons have hit at least one double in 18 straight games, with 60 total in this stretch ... Clarke's eighth-inning stolen base was his second on two attempts ... With one more double, UC San Diego is second in the CCAA with 109, only behind Cal State Monterey Bay (110) ... Clarke's 70 RBI rank No. 2 on the program's single-season chart, having on Wednesday surpassed Triton great and former major leaguer Bob Natal's 67 from 1987 ... Clarke's 15 home runs are tied for third on the single-season list, with four people, among them the Triton who previously wore his No. 16 jersey, current Seattle Mariners minor leaguer Jack Larsen ... Among those in attendance was former Triton right-hander Blake Fassler (2013-14).