LA JOLLA, Calif. - A four-run fourth and an effective seven-inning start from sophomore right-hander Troy Cruz propelled No. 39 UC San Diego to a 7-3 win over No. 12 Chico State in the finale of a California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) baseball series Sunday at Triton Ballpark.
The teams thus split their four-game regular-season set for the third successive year. UCSD (5-4, 2-2 CCAA) had won Friday night’s opener, 8-1, with the visiting Wildcats (6-3, 2-2 CCAA) sweeping the Saturday twin bill, 7-2 and 3-1. The Tritons last lost a four-game series to rival Chico State back in 2007.
Cruz (1-0), a San Diego native out of Chula Vista (Bonita Vista HS) who was named the 2013 CCAA Freshman of the Year, was making his first mound start of 2014 following two relief appearances and eight starts at either third base or designated hitter. He matched the longest outing of his career by throwing the first 7.0 innings and earning his first decision of the season.
Cruz allowed two runs on six hits and two walks, while striking out a pair. He needed just six pitches, all strikes, to breeze through the fifth, and another eight to also retire the ‘Cats in order in the seventh.
The key inning for UCSD was the fourth. Nursing just a 1-0 edge, Cruz got into some trouble, hitting Ruben Padilla to lead things off before a Dylan Garcia single on the very next pitch trickled through the middle of the infield to put ‘Cats at the corners with no outs. Chico State conspired from there to not push across the tying run, as two foulouts around what looked to a botched squeeze attempt, got Cruz out of it.
From there, the Tritons built their cushion with a four-run bottom, sending 10 to the plate and needing just two hits while benefitting from five walks and a passed ball.
Michael Mann singled with one out ahead of back-to-back bases on balls, the later on four pitches, to Justin Rahn and Brett Levy. The first of two sacrifice flies by senior third baseman Garrett Tuck made it 2-0, before two more walks to Tyler Howsley and Erik Lewis forced in another run and spelled the end of the afternoon for Chico State starter Alex Mistuloff (1-1), a transfer from Tennessee.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Shirley greeted Drew Freeman with a two-run single through the left side on the senior right-hander’s first pitch. UCSD loaded the bases again, and maybe should have added to its 5-0 advantage if not for a spectacular running catch in the gap in left center by leftfielder Dylan Garcia on a drive off the bat of senior designated hitter Nick La Face, who hit the ball hard all weekend long.
La Face in fact had opened the scoring in the first. Freshman Jack Larsen was hit by a pitch with two away, and La Face smoked a 2-2 offering that Wildcat centerfielder Connor Huesers took a bad angle on, the ball skidding to the ball and resulting in La Face’s second triple of the weekend after he had entered it with one for his career.
Though Cruz allowed two runs in the sixth to bring Chico State back into it at 5-2, UCSD responded with a two-run seventh. Larsen, who like La Face produced solid contact throughout the series after recovering from injury and joining the starting lineup in center, led off with a two-strike single to center. La Face, on cue, hammered a liner that flipped out of the glove of Padilla at third, but Larsen, having to wait on the line drive, was cut down at second on the fielder’s choice. Mann then worked the count full, fouled off a pair with two strikes and on the eighth pitch, singled to left center.
Rahn found the hole on the right side of the infield on the first pitch of his at-bat for an RBI single. Moments later, Tuck, who began the game still looking for his first RBI of the season, lifted his second sacrifice fly.
Though UCSD regained the five-run advantage there at 7-2, the ninth was not without some drama. Despite a great effort from Mann, Peter Miller reached via infield single to begin the frame off of junior left-hander Chad Rieser. A hit-by-pitch later, Howsley dove to his right to glove a ground ball hit by Blake Walker. The true freshman shortstop had only one play, and that was to Tuck at third, narrowly getting Miller there for the first out.
After another fielder’s choice groundout, Jeffrey Ortega’s single to right brought the tying run to the on-deck circle. Senior right-hander Scott Zeman came on to induce a third fielder’s choice grounder, needing just one pitch for his first save of 2014.
Shirley was 2-for-4 with two RBI, and hit a team-best .444 (4-for-9) for the series. Mann went 2-for-5 with two runs. Lewis, in the leadoff spot for the first time, reached base in his last three plate appearances, going 1-for-3 with two walks and one RBI.
The Tritons next face undefeated and red-hot Cal Poly Pomona (10-0, 4-0 CCAA) in another four-game CCAA series this Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 20-22. The teams will play single games at Scolinos Field in Pomona on Thursday and Friday at 2 p.m., followed by a doubleheader at Triton Ballpark Saturday beginning at 2 p.m.