Photo by: Andy Wilhelm
Alex Eliopulos (left) and Shay Whitcomb celebrate with senior walk-off hero Michael Palos.

Back to Back Champs! No. 22 UC San Diego Rallies From Six-Run Deficit and Walks Off APU in West Final; Heads to Cary

UCSD

AZUSA, Calif. - What's better than a walk-off?

A postseason walk-off.

And what's better than that?

A postseason walk-off that sends your team to Cary.

The 22nd-ranked University of California San Diego stormed back from a 7-1 deficit and walked off over host Azusa Pacific University, 8-7, on senior Michael Palos' pinch-hit, bases-loaded single in the ninth to win a second straight NCAA Division II Championship West Regional title Sunday at Cougar Baseball Complex.

For third-seeded UC San Diego, it was a 12th successive victory and 22nd in its last 24 games, moving the Tritons' overall record to 42-15. Second-seeded Azusa Pacific saw its second straight season ended by UC San Diego, on its home field, finishing at 41-11 after winning its first 16 to start the year. APU needed to defeat the Tritons twice on the day, entering at 2-1 for the tourney, with UCSD the lone unbeaten.

The Tritons rallied from a 7-1 deficit to win for the second time in the tournament, having overturned scores of 6-0 after one and later 7-1 against California Baptist on Friday night, 9-8. In between, they trailed 2-0 after one to CBU in a rematch on Saturday before taking a 5-3 decision.

UC San Diego completed a second straight perfect West Regional run, at 4-0 apiece. The Tritons are set for a return trip to the NCAA Championship, back this year in Cary, N.C., after a one-year move to Grand Prairie, Texas. Now a four-time Division II West Region champion, UC San Diego will be in Cary for the first time since back-to-back runs in 2009 and 2010, with the Tritons national runners-up in the latter year.

Having gradually and efficiently chipped away at the 7-1 deficit, UC San Diego, the designated home team for the initial meeting between the sides, entered the bottom of the ninth inning still trailing by one, 7-6. The last half began with Shay Whitcomb getting hit by a 1-2 pitch from new pitcher Layne Henderson, who had just made 139 tosses in a Friday start. Justin Beck followed by drawing a six-pitch walk, and the Cougars were immediately in trouble. Keenan Brigman, who had a spectacular tournament, tried unsuccessfully on three bunt attempts, but another Triton with a great weekend, Blake Baumgartner, worked a five-pitch free pass to load the bases. Redshirt sophomore catcher Nick Kitzmann, who had homered the inning prior, himself drew a seven-pitch walk, fouling off a 3-2 offering before patiently taking ball four, to force Whitcomb in with the tying run.

That brought Palos to the plate, hitting for junior Christopher Schasteen, who was a defensive replacement in center field to begin the ninth. APU went to sophomore right-hander Tripp Aversa. Palos, a Monterey Park native, swung at a 2-2 pitch and got just enough on it to slip it under the glove and past shortstop Mychael Goudreau into left field with the Cougar infield in, as Beck trotted home with not just the walk-off game-winner, but the tournament-winner that sent UC San Diego back to Cary

APU struck first in the second, alternating flyouts to center with a pair of singles, ahead of a two-out RBI double to right center by Grant Gamble. Triton centerfielder Brandon Stewart's throw was cut off by Beck, and the senior second baseman relayed to Kitzmann, who put the tag on for the third out.

UC San Diego got that run right back in the home half. Whitcomb was hit by a pitch for the Tritons' first base-runner with one gone. He moved to second on a balk, and with two away, Brigman came through with a first-pitch, opposite-field RBI single to right center, just over the leap of second baseman Joe Quire, Jr., sending Whitcomb sprinting around third for 1-1.

The Cougars regained the edge in the third on a one-out walk, fielder's choice groundout that put the athletic Pablo O'Connor at first, a stolen base by the senior, and a two-out RBI single that Osvaldo Tovalin snuck through the right side beyond the reach of the diving Beck, on a 2-2 pitch after going down 0-2 to start the at-bat.

Stewart was stranded at second in the home third. He took four straight balls after falling behind 0-2 in the count with one gone, and moved to second on a groundout, but sophomore right-hander Nick Estrella fanned Zander Clarke. Tyler Durna was narrowly out on the ground ball, which squirted past the first baseman, but just not far enough away from Quire, who picked it up and flipped it to the covering Estrella.

Three subsequent home runs, all to right, gave APU the 7-1 bulge. Quire pulled his sixth out there, a two-run shot after a one-out walk in the fourth. O'Connor then led off the fifth with a first-pitch, opposite-field blast, his team-best 17th. Following another walk and a strikeout, Austin Russ connected on his 11th.

UC San Diego got two huge runs right back in the fifth on Clarke's two-out, two-run single in front of the leftfielder to get things rolling after a one-out Kitzmann hit-by-pitch, a two-out error on Durna's ground ball, and a wild pitch. It meant RBI No. 84 and 85 for Clarke, a new single-season program record, besting fellow slugger Brandon Gregorich's 84 from the national runner-up 2010 campaign.

Having allowed the two long balls in the fifth, true freshman right-hander Cameron Leonard bounced back and ducked around a leadoff single in the sixth with a called third strike, infield popout and swinging strikeout, needing 12 total pitches.

In the home sixth, Beck worked a seven-pitch walk with one away, and Brigman came up big again with a single right up the middle. With two outs, Tovalin booted Kitzmann's hard shot to third, and Beck sprinted around third to score for 7-4.

The Tritons put two more men on in the seventh on a one-out double by Clarke to center, and four-pitch walk to Alex Eliopulos from new pitcher Spiro Valasakos. An infeld popout and deep flyout got the senior right-hander out of trouble, however.

Two unlikely heroes at the bottom of the order and off the bench, respectively, then breathed even more new life into the rally in the eighth, through back-to-back, two-out solo home runs that pulled UC San Diego to within just a run at 7-6. Kitzmann went out to left for his eighth, and just two Valasakos pitches later, redshirt sophomore pinch-hitter Steven Schuknecht took one to a deeper part of the park, to the right of center, for his sixth of 2018.

Indeed, Schuknecht was inserted by Eric Newman in place of Stewart in the leadoff position of the order. In the very next inning, it was Palos who went up to bat in that spot, and the veteran Triton leader both appropriately sent his team on to Cary, and made certain those two key maneuvers paid off handsomely for his coach as well.

Junior right-hander Kyle Lucke put the Tritons right back to work with a six-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth, their first since the opening frame. Whitcomb made a great over-the-shoulder catch running out toward right center on the shift against the left-handed Tovalin on the very first pitch. A flyout to Schasteen preceded a right-sided groundout to Beck, with Lucke getting over to take the putout. He was the beneficiary of the walk-off triumph, evening his personal win-loss record at 3-3.

Jack Rupe, Jr. (San Marcos/Mission Hills HS), like Palos a fourth-year senior, was similarly important to the outcome, throwing up a pair of zeroes in the seventh and eighth ahead of Lucke. With Cougars at second and third through two singles and a stolen base around two outs, he got Gamble to fly out to Brigman to end the seventh. Rupe then also wiped out a one-out walk in the eighth with a critical 5-4-3 double play started by Eliopulos and finished by Durna reaching high for Beck's relay to barely get the speedy O'Connor.

Jonah Dipoto started on the hill for the Tritons and went 3.1 innings, allowed four runs on five hits and two walks. The junior right-hander struck out four, including two around a flyout in a perfect first.

Clarke went 2-for-4 with a double, hit-by-pitch and two RBI, while Kitzmann was 1-for-3 with a home run, walk, hit-by-pitch, two runs and two RBI. Brigman wound up 2-for-5 with an RBI and a steal, and hit a team-best .529 (9-for-17) over the four games. Beck walked twice and Whitcomb was hit twice. Each scored twice.

Estrella gave up four runs, only one of them earned, on six hits, two walks and two hit-by-pitches in 6.1 frames. He struck out eight. Estrella posted a 1-2-3 first inning. Henderson (7-3) managed a single out and was pinned with the loss. Quire was 3-for-3 with the home run, a walk, one run, two RBI and a stolen base. Russ wound up 2-for-5 with his home run, two runs and two RBI. O'Connor scored a pair of runs.

Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 33-18 over its 10 NCAA Championship appearances, including 4-1 against APU ... The Tritons are 22-9 outside of La Jolla, including 15-9 in true road contests ... UC San Diego is 15-22 all-time against APU ... The Tritons have won eight consecutive West Regional games as back-to-back champs ... Alex Eliopulos is the only Triton to start or even appear in all 57 games ... Brandon Stewart batted leadoff and Shay Whitcomb fifth for the 13th time this season and 12th game in a row ... Jonah Dipoto drew his 14th start of the season, matching fellow junior Preston Mott for the team high ... Keenan Brigman's second-inning stolen base was his 10th in 11 attempts, tying him now for the team lead with Stewart ... Nick Kitzmann's fifth-inning hit-by-pitch was his team-best 20th ... Zander Clarke (85) and Eliopulos (71) remain 1-2 in the CCAA in RBI ... With two more home runs and one more double, UC San Diego continues to lead the CCAA in both categories with 77 and 121, respectively ... The Tritons have hit at least one double in 24 straight games, with 72 total in this stretch ... The result marked win No. 250 for Eric Newman in charge of UC San Diego ... Former closer (2011-12) and assistant coach Tony York (2016-17), was among those in attendance ... The start of the game was delayed from 12 p.m. due to some early rain in the area, with first pitch at 12:29 p.m. ... UC San Diego has won 13 consecutive games against PacWest opposition dating back to 2017.

2018 NCAA Division II Championship West Regional
Cougar Baseball Complex • Azusa (Double Elimination)
Thursday, May 17

Game 2: No. 5 California Baptist 7, No. 2 Azusa Pacific 4 (15 innings)
Game 1: No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 10, No. 6 Chico State 7
Game 3: No. 3 UC San Diego 22, No. 4 Point Loma 3

Friday, May 18
Game 4: No. 2 Azusa Pacific 17, No. 6 Chico State 1 (Chico State eliminated)
Game 5: No. 4 Point Loma 13, No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 13-12
Game 6: No. 3 UC San Diego 9, No. 5 California Baptist 8

Saturday, May 19
Game 7: No. 5 California Baptist 17, No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 10 (CSUMB eliminated)
Game 8: No. 2 Azusa Pacific 10, No. 4 Point Loma 7 (PLNU eliminated)
Game 9: No. 3 UC San Diego 5, No. 5 California Baptist 3 (CBU eliminated)

Monday, May 21
Game 10: No. 3 UC San Diego 8, No. 2 Azusa Pacific 7 (APU eliminated)

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