CARY, N.C. - The 22nd-ranked University of California San Diego dug itself an early hole that it nearly battled out of, but fell to No. 23 Southern New Hampshire University, 7-4, in an NCAA Division II Championship elimination game Wednesday night at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
The eight-team, eight-day, double-elimination tournament is being co-hosted by the University of Mount Olive and the Town of Cary, back in Cary after a one-year move last season to Grand Prairie, Texas.
Third-seeded UC San Diego ended another tremendous campaign as repeat West Region champion, at 43-17 overall. Fourth-seeded Southern New Hampshire, the East Region champion out of Manchester, N.H., improved to 41-16. The Penmen face elimination again on Thursday, May 31, against fifth-seeded Augustana.
UC San Diego trailed 7-0 after the first three frames, but scored in three straight innings from the fifth through the seventh, to make a game of it again. All the while, senior closer Cameron Kurz (Encinitas/La Costa Canyon HS) kept the Tritons in contention with a career-long 4.2 shutout innings of relief. He faced the minimum 14 batters over that stretch, with no hits or walks allowed, and six strikeouts.
The Tritons went down in order in their opening half for the second straight night, before Tom Blandini golfed a leadoff home run for the Penmen, his second on the year and the first to right field of the tournament. Junior first baseman Tyler Durna got over and dove to his right to corral Dakota Mulcay's ground ball, got up and flipped to starting pitcher Jack Rupe, Jr. (San Marcos/Mission Hills HS), for the third out.
Durna doubled through the right side with one gone in the second, but like Tuesday night, UC San Diego could not get him around, a strikeout and flyout ending the frame.
Back-to-back one-out singles had the Penmen threatening for more in their second, and a three-run blast down the left field line by junior shortstop Kyle Pangallo, also his second of the year, made it a 4-0 deficit early.
Nick Kitzmann legged out an infield single to begin the third, but yet again, he got stuck at second, as Brandon Stewart was called out on a narrow play at first while sacrificing, followed by a groundout and a strikeout. That made 10 out of the previous 11 innings, going back to Tuesday, in which the Tritons had at least one base-runner, with a man in scoring position in all but one, with no runs.
In the third, it was two straight one-out base-runners again for SNHU, and more runs for the designated home team. This time, it was a single and a walk, with Kyle Lucke taking over for Rupe, only for Ryan Sullivan to drive an RBI single to left center. A wild pitch, flyout and RBI single up the middle made it 7-0.
Kurz came on with two Penmen on in the fourth and got a swinging strikeout and called third strike to put up UC San Diego's first zero of the night.
Michael Palos, a fourth-year senior catcher in the lineup in the designated hitter spot, then provided a needed spark to lead off the fifth, launching his first collegiate home run, 376 feet over the wall in left on a 1-2 pitch. It snapped an uncharacteristic string of 16 scoreless innings for his side that entered Cary averaging 8.6 runs per game.
Freshman shortstop Shay Whitcomb then drew a seven-pitch walk to really fire up the dugout, but a strikeout and flyout ensued. Keenan Brigman then laced his ninth double just inside the left field line, but once again the Tritons suffered some serious misfortune as Whitcomb was ruled out on another close play at the plate. Moments later, Triton head coach Eric Newman was ultimately ejected by the plate umpire.
Kurz breezed through three batters in the home fifth through a swinging strikeout, groundout to Whitcomb and comebacker. Back to work, senior second baseman Justin Beck fouled off a 3-2 pitch before beating the infield shift by lacing an opposite-field double inside the left field line. Zander Clarke then fouled off a pair of two-strike tosses and worked an eight-pitch walk. Following a first SNHU pitching change and three-pitch strikeout, Durna cue-balled one opposite-field off the third-base bag and away from the third baseman, the infield single loading the bases. Palos' six-pitch walk forced in Beck for 7-2, but after a second pitching change, a 5-4-3 double play kept the Penmen's damage to a solitary tally.
Kurz posted a second straight 1-2-3 frame in the sixth, with a flyout, swinging strikeout, and hard comebacker on the 12th pitch of Blandini's at-bat. The SNHU third baseman fouled off seven straight ahead of the ground ball, which Kurz kept in front of him, and fired high with Durna reaching up to grab it.
Kitzmann took a high 3-2 offering for a walk to open the seventh. Facing an 0-2 count, Stewart ripped a double into the left field corner. Brigman's opposite-field sacrifice fly also moved Stewart to third, and after a strikeout, he did just that on Clarke's RBI single through the left side. For Clarke, it was RBI No. 1 for Cary while extending his single-season school record to 86, tied for second national in Division II. Eliopulos then stung a ball but hit it right into the shift, to the shortstop playing behind second.
Kurz collected his third successive 1-2-3 inning in the seventh, making it 11 up, 11 down, with six on strikes.
Rupe (6-3) went 2.1 innings and allowed six runs on six hits and one walk. The San Marcos product (Mission Hills HS) struck out two in his final appearance as a Triton.
Mitchell Powers (6-2) gave up two runs on five hits and two walks over 5.0 frames, striking out seven. The senior right-hander was perfect in the first and fourth.
Triton Notes: UC San Diego is 34-20 over its 10 NCAA Championship appearances, including 10-7 at the finals site and 6-5 in Cary ... Wednesday marked the first-ever meeting between the teams ... The Tritons finish 23-11 outside of La Jolla, including 8-2 in neutral-site contests ... Alex Eliopulos was the only Triton to start or even appear in all 60 games ... Keenan Brigman batted leadoff for the second time this season, fourth time in his college career, and first since Feb. 11, after Brandon Stewart had done so the last 14 games in a row ... Senior Michael Palos was the starting designated hitter for the fourth time in 2018 and fourth time for his career ... Jack Rupe, Jr., made his 16th appearance of the year and drew his 13th start ... It was a 65th and final appearance for his four-year Triton career, and 29th start ... Tyler Durna's second-inning double was his team-best 18th ... Nick Kitzmann threw out his 10th and 11th would-be base-stealers of the season, to end the second and for the first out of the eighth ... Stewart's third-inning sacrifice was his team-best 11th ... Palos' fifth-inning home run was UC San Diego's league-best and school-record 78th ... The Tritons ended the year winning 23 of their last 27 games ... UC San Diego's four runs gave it an even 500 for the season, its most since a school-record 551 in 2010, having generated 282 just two years ago ... The original start time of the game was 7 p.m. ET, but was pushed back to 8 p.m. ET due to adverse weather, and with a severe storm coming through right around that time, first pitch was not until 9:43 p.m. ET.