AZUSA, Calif. - Troy Cruz tossed a complete-game gem, Brandon Shirley hit the three-run bomb early, and Justin Flatt the two-run double late as three seniors led No. 14 University of California San Diego over No. 10 Dixie State University, 5-2, on the first day of the 2017 NCAA Division II Championship West Regional at Cougar Baseball Complex on Thursday night.
UC San Diego was the designated visitor as the lower seed at No. 4, and improved to 37-17 on the season. Third-seeded Dixie State dropped to 37-13-1.
The Tritons will next face ninth-ranked and second-seeded tournament host Azusa Pacific, again in primetime on Friday night, May 19, at 7 p.m. APU was a 3-1 winner over 15th-ranked and second-seeded Pacific West Conference rival California Baptist in Thursday's first game. DSU faces elimination against two-time defending West Region champion Cal Poly Pomona, an upset victor in 10 innings (8-7) over top seed Chico State, at 3 p.m. Friday.
For the second straight postseason tourney opener, Cruz (8-2) was masterful. The Chula Vista native out of Bonita Vista High School allowed two runs, with just one of them earned, on 10 hits without a single walk over his season-long 9.0 innings. The redshirt senior right-hander struck out three. He retired seven in a throw from a sacrifice fly in the third through a two-out single in the fifth. Cruz had gone eight strong frames with a solitary score against him at the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Championship last Wednesday night, May 10, in Stockton.
Jack Larsen turned an 0-2 deficit into a seven-pitch walk to lead off the contest, but a three-pitch strikeout by junior right-hander Dylan File, and two flyouts, ended that.
Dixie State's leadoff man also reached in the home half, Drew McLaughlin knocking the glove off of Cruz for an infield single. A successful sacrifice preceded successive hard-hit lineouts to Shirley in center.
After a 1-2-3 top of the second, Dixie began its half with an opposite-field single through the left side and another bunt. Cruz induced the ground ball on the next batter, with senior shortstop Tyler Howsley expertly getting the lead runner at third on the fielder's choice. A popout kept it scoreless after two.
UCSD was first on the scoreboard in the third. Howsley chopped the Tritons' first hit right over the third baseman's head, and Larsen worked his second walk of the night. Shirley, who had struck out swinging on three tosses in his first meeting with File, won the rematch, going first-pitch big fly deep to left center for a three-run home run, his fifth on the year.
The defense behind Cruz let him down a bit in what otherwise could have and probably should have been a shutdown third. The leadoff man reached for a third straight frame, via hot-shot infield single that Tyler Durna just could not quite get a grip on down the line. On consecutive fielder's choices, the Tritons were unable to turn the double play, and then failed to get an out on the latter one due to an error. Trey Kamachi's single loaded the bases, as the Trailblazers did not want to test Larsen's arm in right. Cleanup hitter Logan Porter lifted a sacrifice fly for 3-1, before Cruz limited the damage by registering his first strikeout of the night, on three pitches to Tyler Mildenberg.
Freshman designated hitter Chad Crosbie began the fourth by lining a first-pitch double into the gap in right center, but a strikeout and two flyouts kept him there.
Cruz then needed just seven tosses to file his first 1-2-3 inning of the evening, finally retiring the leadoff man for the first time, in fact himself on a comebacker, ahead of an infield lineout and flyout.
UCSD also threatened in the fifth, getting a one-out walk by Durna and a subsequent single through the right side by Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS). JD Hearn flew out to center, however, and Kamachi threw an absolute dart to double up Durna tagging up and trying for third.
Cruz got the first two outs in the home fifth easily, but a single and stolen base by shortstop Tyler Baker made things slightly tenuous. Kamachi then grounded one to Howsley, and Durna, as he's been doing all year, dug out the skipped throw to end it.
The Tritons went down in order in the sixth, and on the third toss on the other side, Porter snuck his ninth home run of the season just over the wall and just inside the line in right, to pull Dixie State to within a single run at 3-2. Cruz got Mildenberg swinging again and Keenan Brigman made a nice grab in left, but Miles Bice stroke a two-out double to right. A groundout left him stranded there.
Cruz started Bryce Feist off 0-2 to kick off the home seventh, but the Trailblazers' No. 9 batter ultimately smacked an opposite-field single to right to bring up the top of the order with no margin for error for Cruz and the Tritons. A right-sided groundout with the runner moving put Feist at second. Baker then grounded one to Howsley, and for the second time in the game, DSU made the mistake of having a lead runner gunned down at third, Howsley again throwing to Eliopulos. Cruz then froze Kamachi on his third toss for the backwards K and 3-2 edge intact.
With nerves on high alert, Flatt provided his side with two giant insurance runs in the eighth. Durna took a 1-2 pitch to right center for a leadoff single, ending File's night after he had retired seven in a row. Eliopulos then took his place on a fielder's choice, and Hearn worked a six-pitch walk, his second of the night. After Brigman flied out to left, UC San Diego head coach Eric Newman sent the right-handed Jesse Moore up to hit for Crosbie against the left-handed Matt Mosca. Dixie State in turn went to right-handed Sean Hardman, and Newman called on Flatt. The fourth-year senior took three pitches outside the zone, and in a situation where he perhaps wouldn't ordinarily swing, laced a 3-0 offering into the gap in right center to make Newman the winner in that battle of wits
Cruz and his defense took care of the rest. Howsley dove full-stretch behind the bag to corral Porter's bid for a leadoff single in the eighth, and the work still wasn't done, as yet again, Durna picked the low throw for the first out of a perfect frame, with Cruz gobbling up the easy comebacker on the third. Bice singled to open the last half. New catcher Reece Lucero saw three balls, and as things were looking precarious, flied out harmlessly to Larsen on a 3-1 pitch.
Newman made a rare mound visit, with Cruz really under no threat to be pulled at that juncture. What was effectively a timeout led into a tremendous sprinting catch by Brigman toward the gap in left center for the second out. McLaughlin barely beat out an infield single, and Baker flew out to relatively deep right to put the cap on it.
Shirley finished 1-for-5 with the home run, run scored and three RBI. Larsen was 0-3 with two walks and a run. Eliopulos went 2-for-4 with a run.
File (8-2) went seven-plus innings and gave up four runs on six hits and four walks, striking out six. He turned in his first perfect frame in the second on an infield lineout, three-pitch strikeout and soft comebacker. File fanned two in a 1-2-3 sixth. A swinging strikeout punctuated a seven-pitch seventh.
DSU out-hit UCSD on the night, 10-7, with two each by McLaughlin, Bice and Feist. Porter drove in both Trailblazer runs.
Triton Notes: UCSD is 22-16 over nine NCAA Division II Championship appearances ... The Tritons are an even 2-2 against Dixie State all-time, with two straight wins, and all four matchups coming at the NCAA Championship ... Tyler Howsley extended his consecutive games played streak to 163 dating back to the 2015 opener ... Jack Larsen has appeared in 118 straight games, all of them starts ... JD Hearn has appeared in 85 games in a row, all of them starts ... Hearn, Howsley and Larsen are the only Tritons to appear in all 54 games this season, with only Hearn and Larsen starting each ... Troy Cruz drew his fifth start of the year and 35th of his career ... Larsen's leadoff walk in the first extended his reached-base streak to 36 games ... Brandon Shirley's third-inning blast was UCSD's CCAA-leading 50th of the season and extended its streak to 11 games in a row with a home run, with multiple blasts in eight ... UCSD has totaled 23 home runs in those contests ... It was Shirley's second postseason home run, having hit one in his postseason debut at the 2014 CCAA Championship against rival Chico State ... Chad Crosbie's leadoff double in the fourth was his eighth, out of his 22 hits ... Keenan Brigman's team-best hit streak was snapped at 16 games ... It was a sixth career complete game for Cruz, and the first since one of the seven-inning variety on May 3, 2014 ... The only other nine-inning complete game for Cruz came on March 30, 2014, in another 5-2 victory, at Cal State East Bay, with one of the two runs unearned that day as well ... Cruz has now pitched 17.0 innings this postseason with a 1.06 ERA, 14 hits and three walks against, and 12 strikeouts ... Cruz has drawn starts each of the last five weeks, having joined the rotation on April 20, and won the last four.