STOCKTON, Calif. - There is a reason you like to have seniors on your team. You ideally would like to lean on them when a result is needed most.
Wednesday night at Banner Island Ballpark, fifth-year senior Troy Cruz was all business from well before the first pitch, and led No. 21 University of California San Diego to a 6-1 triumph over Stanislaus State with huge postseason implications, in both teams' opening game at the 2017 California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Baseball Championship.
Cruz went a season-long 8.0 innings and allowed a single run on four hits and three walks, striking out a career-high nine in just a majestic effort from the Chula Vista product out of Bonita Vista High School. Sitting at 129 pitches through eight, nobody was keeping him in the dugout to start the ninth. He battled back from an 2-0 hole to draw even at 2-2, but a leadoff double that just barely tailed away from fellow redshirt senior Brandon Shirley in left center field, ended his spectacular night. Redshirt freshman right-hander Blaine Jarvis was able to shut the door on a third straight winning decision for Cruz (7-2), who was making just his fourth start of 2017, having returned to the rotation on April 20. He retired nine straight batters in the sixth, seventh and eighth before that double, with all but one on the infield.
Earlier in the day, UCSD remained in the fourth spot in the third installment of the official NCAA Division II West Region poll, with Stanislaus State moving up from seventh to fifth, and the top six making the NCAA Championship field. A win would have strengthened that top-four hold and bid for the Tritons, whereas a defeat to the team right behind, would have made things much more tenuous.
Cruz and his teammates made sure of securing the former scenario, largely silencing the strong Stan State contingent on hand who made the short trip from Turlock.
Third-seeded UC San Diego, the designated home side, improved to 33-15 overall. Fourth-seeded Stan State fell to 34-17. The Tritons had taken two out of three in the regular-season series in Turlock in early April. They remain in the winner's bracket, and will meet rival and two-time reigning West Region champion Cal Poly Pomona in another primetime affair at 7 p.m. on Thursday night, May 11. The six-team, double-elimination event is back this year at neutral-site Banner Island Ballpark, home of the minor-league Stockton Ports. CPP defeated Cal State Monterey Bay in the game just prior, 6-3. The Broncos then also won the coin toss after the Tritons' finish, and thus will be the designated home team on Thursday.
Cruz registered the first out on his very first toss of the night on a fly ball. After going 3-0 to the next batter, he rallied to strike Kyle Nixon out swinging, and did the same to Gino Franceschetti for a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 first.
An eventful bottom half resulted in no runs for UCSD. Jack Larsen inside-outed an opposite-field single to left for starters, after fouling off successive 1-2 offerings from senior right-hander Jordan Kron. The All-CCAA First Team selection came back to strike out Shirley, but walked Tyler Durna on four throws. Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) hit a fielder's choice ground ball with the Stan State third baseman tagging out Larsen, which is where the oddity occurred. The motion of the umpire made the Warriors think he was calling interference on Larsen for an inning-ending double play. Franceschetti, the third baseman, thus flipped the ball toward the unmanned mound. Durna alertly scooted over to third, as in fact the umpire's gesture was solely to indicate the out made on Larsen. With Tritons at the corners, JD Hearn went opposite field down the right field line with the first pitch of his at-bat, but rather than being a two-run double, it was just narrowly foul. Two pitches later, he stung another ball to right, but directly at rightfielder Andrew Wheat.
Cruz punched out two more in the second while navigating around a one-out single with the help of his catcher, as redshirt freshman Nick Kitzmann fired to shortstop Tyler Howsley to cut down Kert Woods for just the third time in 18 tries. It was a seventh would-be base-stealer thrown out by Kitzmann on 12 attempts, and third in succession.
Keenan Brigman, who spent his first year out of high school as a redshirt at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, took an 0-2 pitch to left for a leadoff single in the second. The San Jose native swiped second with one away, and Kitzmann was hit by a pitch. An infield popout preceded a nice battle between Larsen and Kron that ended with the Triton senior hitting a ground ball to first that former Capistrano Valley High School teammate Aldo Koutsoyanopulos made the stab on to stop, but just could not pick up, for the game's lone error to load the bases. Shirley made him pay, working a walk to force Brigman home with the game's first run, but that was all UCSD would get, as Durna was controversially called out at first on a real close play that saw two bounces on second baseman Adam Nascimento's throw.
Hearn made a great grab at the top of his leap after running to his left toward the outfield grass for the first out of the third, with Cruz following that up by freezing the next two hitters with called third strikes to notch his second perfect frame.
UCSD put two on for the third straight frame, on a five-pitch leadoff walk to Eliopulos and a one-out Brigman single, on another two-strike count. Kron again wriggled out of it, with a groundout and a swinging strikeout to keep it 1-0.
Larsen's absolute moonshot to right with one gone in the fourth doubled the Triton advantage to 2-0. It was his team- and career-best 10th of the season.
Stanislaus State got back to within one with a run in the fifth. Cruz got the leadoff man looking. After a walk, it looked like he had induced the type of ground ball that would get him out of the inning, but the Tritons could only get the lead runner. The Warriors made them pay, loading the bags on a first-pitch single and four-pitch walk, before an RBI infield single. Howsley actually dove behind the bag to corral the ball and flipped to Hearn, but he had no play at any base on the slowly-hit grounder. The trail runner tried to come around with the tying run, but Hearn was keen to it, tossing to Kitzmann to easily get the out at the plate.
That tally seemed to shift the momentum somewhat, with Kron settling down to set down six in a row after the Larsen bomb, but with two gone in the seventh, Eliopulos unleashed his fourth home run of the season, also deep to right, for 4-1.
One-out walks to Kitzmann and Howsley at the bottom of the order in the eighth paved the way for Larsen to send a double past Koutsoyanopulos at first and into the right field corner, for two more insurance scores at 6-1.
In the ninth, Jarvis issued a pair of walks after a lineout and swinging strikeout on a key 3-2 pitch, respectively, to bring the tying run into the on-deck circle, but the Bay Area native got Charlie Gaff to foul out to Durna and extinguish the threat.
Cruz fanned three straight between the first and second. He produced three ground-ball outs around a two-out single to get through the fourth. Three groundouts got him through the sixth without issue. Durna ranged into foul territory and made the catch falling backward for the second out of the eighth.
Larsen, the reigning CCAA and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association West Region Player of the Week, finished 3-for-5 with a home run, double, three RBI and a run scored. Kitzmann went 1-for-2 with his home run, a hit-by-pitch, walk, two runs scored and an RBI. Brigman was 2-for-4 with a run and stolen base.
Kron (8-3) went 7.0 innings and gave up four runs, three of them earned, on seven hits, three walks and a hit-by-pitch. He struck out seven, registering his only perfect frame in the fifth on two strikeouts and a groundout. Kron had entered the game having allowed only three home runs all year, but UCSD doubled that amount.
Triton Notes: UCSD is 26-16 at the CCAA Championship, making its 13th appearance and fourth straight ... The Tritons are 1-1 against Stan State all-time at the CCAA Championship, the other meeting in Chico in 2008, a 6-5 loss in 10 innings in an elimination game ... Tyler Howsley extended his consecutive games played streak to 157 dating back to the 2015 opener ... Jack Larsen has appeared in 112 straight games, all of them starts ... JD Hearn has appeared in 79 games in a row, all of them starts ... Hearn, Howsley and Larsen are the only Tritons to appear in all 48 games this season, with only Hearn and Larsen starting each ... Troy Cruz drew his fourth start of 2017 and 34th of his college career ... Brandon Shirley played in his 199th career game ... True freshman Chad Crosbie made his ninth start, but first as the designated hitter ... Larsen and Tyler Durna extended their respective reached-base streaks to 39 and 30 games in the very first frame with a leadoff single and a walk ... Durna's is the second-longest in UCSD's NCAA Division II history (since 2001), behind only Jeff Riddle's 41-gamer from 2004 ... Keenan Brigman's single to lead off the second extended his current team-best hit streak to 11 games, with his stolen base his seventh on eight tries ... Larsen's fourth-inning home run was the 22nd of his career and third at Banner Island Ballpark ... Hearn's seventh-inning steal was his ninth in 10 tries ... Cruz has a 1.24 career ERA against Stan State over seven career appearances, three of them starts (29.0 IP, 24 H, 7 R, 4 ER, 7 BB, 27 K) ... The contest started exactly one hour later than scheduled, at 8 p.m., due to the length of the first two games of the day ... The result insures that the Tritons have not gone two-and-out at the CCAA Championship in any of their past eight appearances, since losing both games in 2008, when they were eliminated by Stan State on day two ... UCSD began the day tied for first in the CCAA with Cal State LA at 38 home runs apiece, and after CSULA hit four in a 9-8 loss to Chico State in the first game, got back to within one with three long balls in the nightcap ... Larsen's three RBI increase his team-leading total to 48, now tied for first in the CCAA, with 14 over his last five games ... It took the Tritons 25 pitches to secure the first out of their 2016 CCAA tourney opener to begin what turned out to be a nightmare seven-run inning for CSUMB, but Cruz needed a solitary toss Wednesday for the first out this time around ... UCSD right-handers John Erhardt and Cameron Kurz both celebrated birthdays on Wednesday.