No. 16 UCSD Rallies and Holds on Behind Cruz to Take Series Win at Sonoma State, Strengthen First-Place Standing
ROHNERT PARK, Calif. - The 16th-ranked UC San Diego baseball team rallied from a 2-0 deficit behind eight tough innings from Troy Cruz (Chula Vista/Bonita Vista HS) and held on late to top Sonoma State University, 4-3, clinching the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) series at Seawolf Diamond on Sunday.
With the victory, first-place UCSD improved to 22-9 overall and 18-5 in the CCAA. Sonoma State fell to 17-16 overall and 11-13 in league play. After the Tritons took Friday's opener, 4-3, the teams split Saturday's doubleheader, with UCSD winning 4-1 in game one before surrendering a 5-3 decision in the seven-inning nightcap.
Cruz (5-2) allowed three runs on six hits and one walk over a season-high 8.0 innings, striking out six. The right-hander retired the Seawolves in succession quickly in the second on just eight pitches through a flyout, groundout, and his first strikeout of the afternoon. Cruz took care of SSU without issue in the third with two more punchouts over 12 tosses, in the fourth on 11, and again in the fifth on 13. Cruz has now won his last four starts, all in conference action.
"To say he pitched with a lot of courage, would be an understatement," said UCSD head coach Eric Newman of his junior All-American. "He fell behind early, but we didn't do him any favors defensively in the first inning, messing up the first-and-third delayed-steal situation. Troy pitched an incredible game after that. He really got out of that jam in the seventh with the huge double play, when it looked like they were going to tie the game. He had command all day long and was mixing his pitches, attacking the strike zone, and keeping hitters off balance. He pitched great, when we needed him to pitch great."
The Tritons were nursing their 4-3 lead heading into the last half, when John Erhardt took over on the hill. The big right-handed redshirt freshman out of Huntington Beach threw two balls to Devin Alexander, who was 2-for-3 in the game at the time, triggering a trip to the mound from Newman. Erhardt came out of the visit with a called strike, and moments later had the Seawolf leftfielder staring at a lethal 3-2 slider. The next batter, Eric Ehlow, grounded one toward the hole, but sophomore shortstop Tyler Howsley made a great, sliding stop, and showed off the strong arm in time. Erhardt closed out his first collegiate save with another called third strike on Spencer Neve.
"John settled down (after the two balls), and all of a sudden, filled up the strike zone, attacked hitters, and did a wonderful job," remarked Newman, who generally has pitching coach Rob Avila handle mound visits. "We needed him to. We used up Chad (Rieser) and Dan (Kolodin). We weren't going to be able to go to either one of those guys in that game. It was great to see (Erhardt) step up and really deliver for us."
Asked what he told Erhardt, Newman added, "I told him to embrace the opportunity. Embrace the moment. Don't let the game speed up on you. Pitch when you're ready."
The home side struck for a pair in its first turn at-bat, moving runners to the corners and plating them both on a double steal and an RBI single by Alexander.
UCSD moved a runner into scoring position for the first time in the fifth, and was able to knot the score with a pair of two-out, run-scoring hits. Erik Lewis and Tyler Plantier (Poway/Del Norte HS) each singled around a strikeout, but Lewis was put out on the bases, with Plantier advancing to second with two away. That's when Howsley, batting in the nine hole, sent an RBI double into the left field corner, and came around on the ensuing single up the middle by Gradeigh Sanchez.
After Cruz produced a fourth straight perfect frame in the home fifth, Justin Flatt was plunked by new Seawolf pitcher Aaron Gillis' third offering and moved to second on a passed ball. Michael Mann drew a five-pitch walk, and Jack Larsen worked the count full before pulling a single to right to load the bases for the quick hook on Gillis. Haydon Turpin came on to get Steven Coe (Valley Center/Valley Center HS) swinging on four pitches, but Lewis dumped an 0-1 offering opposite field into left to give UCSD the lead for the first time on the day at 3-2. The Tritons added another on Brandon Shirley's sacrifice fly.
Cruz got the shutdown frame in the bottom half, working around a one-out, ground-rule double by Jourdan Weiks that ended his string of 13 hitters set down in order.
The home seventh opened with a first-pitch Alexander single and the first base on balls issued by Cruz of the contest. A sacrifice bunt and RBI single by Philip Ramos on consecutive pitches made it a 4-3 game with Seawolves still at the corners and one away. Cruz then dialed up the routine 4-6-3 double play off the bat of pinch-hitter Steven Moen, however, to maintain the slim edge for his side.
A one-out infield single by Weiks made for a nervy eighth, but Cruz got CCAA Player of the Week Alex Crosby to pop up to Lewis, with Flatt then making a diving stop on a Cody Morris grounder before calmly stepping on the bag for the third out.
Sanchez was 2-for-4 with an RBI at the top of the Triton order. Lewis went 2-for-3 with an RBI of his own. UCSD put its leadoff man on base in five of nine frames. Coe, the Triton catcher, pounced on a nice bunt by Dustyn Macaluso with the first pitch of the home third, firing to first for the out.
"For us, it was the next game," offered Newman about capping off the weekend. "It happened to be that we had the opportunity to win the series. Winning today was important for our team, mentality, confidence, where we're going, and what we are trying to accomplish. Every game in this series was hard-fought. It's a tough place to play, and a tough place to come up and win. Not a lot of teams are able to do that. It shows a lot about our character as a team, and growing up a little bit."
Devin Bradley went five full and gave up two runs on seven hits and one walk, with two strikeouts. The senior right-hander produced one perfect frame in the third, before benefitting from a tough basket catch against the wall in right center by Macaluso off a first-pitch drive by Flatt to begin the fourth. Turpin tossed 3.0 shutout frames with one hit, one walk and four strikeouts. He needed nine pitches to get through a clean eighth. Gillis (0-3) took the loss.
Alexander was 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI. Weiks went 2-for-3 with a double.
UCSD flies back to San Diego on Sunday night, and faces a big split-venue four-gamer with 18th-ranked Cal Poly Pomona (22-8, 14-6 CCAA), tied for second in the league standings, in the week ahead. The Broncos also come off a 3-1 CCAA series win, over Cal State Dominguez Hills. The first two meetings will be primetime affairs at Triton Ballpark on Thursday, April 2, and Friday, April 3, each with 6 p.m. first pitches. The set concludes Saturday at Scolinos Field in Pomona with a noon doubleheader.
Concluded Newman, "Any time we play Cal Poly Pomona, that's two good teams going at it. They are well-coached, and always near the top of the league. It's going to be a great series. I anticipate a dogfight. Last year, we played them six times, and four were decided in the last at-bat. We'll have to play well. We look forward to it."
Triton Notes: Gradeigh Sanchez earned his seventh start in a row, all in the leadoff position ... Justin Flatt made his first collegiate appearance at first base, starting there for the first time after 29 starts in left field ... Michael Mann returned to the starting lineup for the first time in this series, in the designated hitter spot for the first time this season ... Sanchez extended his career-best hit streak to eight games, while Flatt moved his current team-best reached-base streak to 15 ... Sanchez has reached in 13 straight ... UCSD last won its four-game series in Rohnert Park, also by a 3-1 count, on its 2011 visit.