LA JOLLA, Calif. - Freshman shortstop Shay Whitcomb sprinted home on a passed ball to give No. 7 University of California San Diego a walk-off, 3-2 win in 10 innings against Cal State Dominguez Hills in the opener of a four-game California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) baseball series Thursday night at Triton Ballpark.
With the victory, UC San Diego improved to 7-3 overall and 3-2 in the CCAA. The Tritons are in first place in the early going, though only five of 12 teams have begun the conference schedule. Cal State Dominguez Hills fell to 3-4 overall and 0-1 in league play following its CCAA opener. The Toros have contested all seven of their games thus far against teams ranked in Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's preseason top 25.
The home 10th began with senior second baseman Justin Beck grounding out. Whitcomb, a product of Newbury Park (Newbury Park HS), took a strike before accepting a five-pitch walk. Redshirt junior third baseman Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) then rolled one over to Charles Steele. Steele, who had just taken over at second base after pinch-hitting in the top half, was unable to find the handle, and then compounded matters by throwing the ball past his first baseman, allowing Whitcomb to scoot all the way over to third base. The junior was credited with two errors on the play. Then as redshirt junior rightfielder Zander Clarke swung at and missed a 1-1 offering by reliever Nick Suniga (1-1), catcher Evan Yeager had the ball squirt out of his glove and toward the backstop. Whitcomb was able to score easily. Yeager, like Steele, had just entered the game defensively.
The rare passed-ball walk-off made a winner on the mound out of Cameron Kurz (Encinitas/La Costa Canyon HS). The local product had followed fellow junior right-hander Kyle Lucke's two scoreless innings of relief, with two of his own. He ducked around a leadoff walk in the ninth, quickly wiping that out through a 6-4-3 double play and another groundout. Kurz then notched three more ground-ball outs in the 10th, in order, earning the assist on two of them, athletically leaping up to grab the latter before tossing to first baseman Rj Prince for the third out.
Lucke also was unblemished save for one walk. He set down the first five he faced, on three groundouts and two strikeouts, ahead of a two-out walk and a fielder's choice ground ball. Lucke fell behind leadoff man Kai Gomez, 3-0, to begin the eighth after the leftfielder had singled in each of his first three plate appearances, but rallied to get the junior swinging. He and Kurz ultimately combined for four no-hit frames.
That was all in relief of senior right-hander Mitch Hickey, in a third start for the Oregon State transfer. Hickey had fanned three in each of his first two outings, but exploded for eight strikeouts against the Toros, in six complete innings. He gave up the two runs on five hits, walking three.
The Thursday night pitchers' duel between Hickey and junior left-hander Rigo Fernandez (5.0 IP, 2 H, R, 6 BB, 9 SO) produced nothing but zeroes until the Tritons finally scratched across a single tally in the fifth. Redshirt freshman outfielder Brandon Stewart led off by turning an 0-2 deficit into a six-pitch walk, with Christopher Schasteen following suit with a free pass. Whitcomb moved them both over with a right-sided groundout, and Eliopulos was intentionally walked for the first of two times on the evening. Clarke then chopped one that was simply too slow to turn a double play on, and wound up with an RBI fielder's choice as Stewart scored.
Hickey was unable to procure the shutdown frame, as CSUDH grabbed both its runs in the sixth. With one gone, back-to-back single-pitch at-bats resulted in a sharp single to right by designated hitter Dalton Duarte, and a first home run of the season by senior shortstop Esteban Ortega, over the left field wall for a 2-1 edge.
UC San Diego drew level again in the seventh. Whitcomb smacked a leadoff triple, the first of his college career, to straightaway center over the head of centerfielder Daryl Donerson on a 1-0 pitch. Eliopulos then took a 1-1 offering just over the infield dirt to center field for his league-leading 16h RBI and a 2-2 game. The Tritons would go on to load the bases, but a popout kept the score tied, until the 10th.
Whitcomb finished 1-for-3 with the triple, two runs scored and three walks. Eliopulos was 2-for-4 with the one RBI and two intentional walks. Prince and Stewart both added 2-for-4 nights with a walk apiece. Stewart scored once, and also fought back from down 1-2 to work the count full and produce an infield single to open the eighth.
UC San Diego and Cal State Dominguez Hills meet once more at Triton Ballpark on East Campus in La Jolla on Friday, Feb. 23. First pitch is set for an earlier 4 p.m. Those unable to attend can watch in high definition on UCSDtritons.tv for a fee of $5.99.
Triton Notes: Junior Tyler Durna had started 63 straight games at first base, with the final 54 of the 2017 season and first nine of 2018, prior to having to sit Thursday night's contest out through injury ... Durna is not expected to play this weekend ... Michael Palos batted cleanup for the first time in his college career, and in fact had not hit higher than in the sixth spot as a Triton ... Cameron Kurz was credited with the second winning decision of his college career, the other one also coming at home, on March 20, 2016, against Cal Poly Pomona ... It was UCSD's first extra-inning game of 2018, and second walk-off victory, the other coming Feb. 17 on an error ... The Tritons walked a season-high 10 times.