STOCKTON, Calif. - In another classic slugfest between big-time rivals, the 18th-ranked UC San Diego baseball team outlasted No. 9 Chico State, 5-3, in its opening game of the 2014 California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Championship Thursday night at Banner Island Ballpark.
The four-team, double-elimination conference tournament is being held at the neutral-site facility of the minor-league Stockton Ports for the second straight year.
UCSD, the No. 3 seed, improved to 33-14 overall, while the second-seeded Wildcats dropped to 37-12. The teams had split their four-game regular-season series in La Jolla to begin the league slate back in mid-February.
The Tritons advance into the winner’s bracket to face No. 2 seed Cal Poly Pomona on Friday night at 7 p.m. UCSD won a postgame coin flip and will be the designated home team. The 19th-ranked Broncos scored seven runs in the second en route to a 9-4 decision over top-seeded regular-season champion Sonoma State earlier Thursday. UCSD and CPP split their four-game regular-season series, Feb. 20-22.
Redshirt freshman rightfielder Brandon Shirley took the third pitch of the game and drove it into center for a leadoff single. Erik Lewis then saw seven pitches from Chico State ace Nick Baker, named earlier in the day as the 2014 CCAA Pitcher of the Year, but struck out. Nick La Face worked the count full and took a couple of close balls to ultimately draw his league-leading 42nd walk of the year. The ‘Cats cut down La Face as both Tritons tried to advance on a Baker toss in the dirt, however, and with Shirley at third, Justin Rahn grounded out to end the early threat.
Right away in the bottom half for the higher-seeded designated home team, Chico State leadoff man Ryne Clark reached on an infield throwing error. Eric Angerer bunted him over. A Ruben Padilla single put ‘Cats at the corners, and a successful squeeze by Peter Miller put them on the scoreboard. With Padilla moving from second, third baseman Troy Cruz (Chula Vista/Bonita Vista HS) made a tough scoop toward the hole and threw out Ryan McClellan to save a certain second run.
Baker plunked Cruz with his very first offering of the second, but Michael Mann hit into a 4-6-3 double play. After a bloop single that dropped down the right field line for Garrett Tuck with one away in the third, Baker dialed up another twin killing with his next pitch, this time 6-4-3.
Clark belted a one-out double to the wall in left center in the bottom of the third and moved 90 feet closer on a flyout. After a five-pitch walk to Padilla, Tuck gobbled up a fielder’s choice grounder and flipped to Lewis to end the inning.
A leadoff Lewis single and a called strike three preceded a third double play in four frames for Chico State, 4-6-3.
Cruz singled and Mann drew a free pass to begin another promising threat in the fifth. After Baker cut down the lead runner at third on a sacrifice attempt, Jack Larsen plopped a single right in front of Walker in left to load the bases. Baker then made the key mistake and threw away a pickoff attempt to first, allowing Mann to knot the score. With the infield drawn in, Tuck chopped an RBI single right up the middle to give UCSD its first lead at 2-1. A strikeout and a groundout kept it there.
Chico State got those runs back in its turn. A Cody Slader infield single, throwing error and second Clark double put both Wildcats in scoring position. Angerer’s single leveled things again, and after Padilla walked to load the bases, Miller’s sacrifice fly put the ‘Cats back on top. Junior left-handed starter Trevor Scott got out of any further trouble with a fielder’s choice ground ball and a flyout.
UCSD continued to put runners on base, as La Face and Rahn pulled singles through the left and right side, respectively, to start the sixth. It was another 4-6-3 double play that bit the Tritons, however, after a bunt popout.
A bunt single, sacrifice bunt and single through the left side advanced Wildcats to the corners with one gone in the bottom of the seventh, but it was the Tritons who finally turned two, as reliever David Hart got Miller to roll over 6-4-3 starting with Tuck at short, to keep the margin at a single run, 3-2.
That play paid immediate dividends, as Shirley launched Robert Hook’s initial offering of the eighth over the wall in left to tie the score once more at 3-3. It was his second home run of the season.
Hart fanned McClellan looking and got Connor Huesers to ground out to begin the home eighth, and after Tyler Madrid doubled to the deepest part of the park in straightaway center, UCSD went back to a left-hander in Chad Rieser. The junior had pinch-hitter Dylan Garcia waving at a 3-2 pitch, and it was on to the ninth.
In the ninth, Cruz worked the count full and drew the leadoff walk from Hook. With one away, Cruz swiped second, and on the very next pitch, Brett Levy singled sharply to center to put Tritons at the corners. Larsen battled with two strikes but ultimately gave in to Hook for the second out. On the next pitch, Tuck lifted a two-run double to the gap in left center to give the Tritons a two-run cushion at 5-3.
Triton closer Scott Zeman struck out pinch-hitter Danny Miller to start the last half, but Clark managed his fourth hit of the contest solidly into right center. The senior right-hander then went up 0-2 on Angerer and got him to fly out to Larsen in right center. Zeman again went 0-2 before Padilla worked the count full. The senior third baseman grounded out to new shortstop Tyler Howsley to end the game, earning Zeman his eighth save and Rieser (3-1) the one-out win.
Scott, the only member of the Tritons’ starting rotation with prior postseason experience in a UCSD uniform, allowed three runs, two of them earned, on six hits and two walks over 5.0 innings, with two strikeouts. He retired the Wildcats in order in the second on two ground balls and a strikeout. Scott erased a two-out single to Clayton Gelfand in the fourth by freezing Blake Walker.
Hart tossed a perfect sixth in relief with a flyout, strikeout and bunt groundout. He went 2.2 innings in all with three hits against him and two strikeouts. The Triton bullpen combined for four scoreless, facing two over the minimum.
Tuck wound up 3-for-4 with his third double and three RBI on the night. Since the beginning of April, the fourth-year senior is hitting .404 (19-for-47) with eight runs, a double, triple and 11 RBI. Shirley was 2-for-5 with the home run, run scored and RBI. Levy scored twice. UCSD put the leadoff runner on base in seven of nine innings.
Baker (9-1) had suffered his only losing decision during the regular season on Feb. 14 at UCSD (2.1 IP, 7 H, 6 ER). Tonight he went 6.0 frames and gave up two runs, one of them earned, on eight hits and two walks. The senior right-hander struck out four. Hook (6-2) set the Tritons down in order for the only time in the seventh, and was rewarded by getting pinned with the loss.
Clark finished 4-for-5 with two doubles and a pair of runs scored. Miller drove in two. Padilla was 2-for-3 with two walks.
Chico State faces an elimination game against the other higher-seeded squad in Sonoma State on Friday at 3 p.m.
Triton Notes: Troy Cruz is the only Triton to start all 47 games, with 11 coming on the mound ... Cruz extended his career-best hit streak to 10 games with his leadoff single in the fifth, and stole his team-best ninth base in the ninth ... Trevor Scott drew his 11th start of the year and 27th of his career ... Scott had also opened UCSD’s 2012 postseason with a start against Sonoma State, a 6-0 win (5.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 8 SO) at Triton Ballpark at the CCAA Championship in La Jolla ... Erik Lewis’ leadoff single in the fourth extended his reached-base streak to 16 games ... The Tritons are 18-7 away from home in 2014 ... In its 10th appearance, UCSD is 21-12 all-time at the CCAA Championship, and 4-1 under third-year head coach Eric Newman ... The Tritons have equaled their top overall win total under Newman from his first season in 2012 (33-24).