Photo by: James Benson
Brandon Stewart was UC San Diego's sparkplug at the top of the order Sunday, scoring twice.

Hickey the Star as No. 22 UC San Diego Blanks No. 26 Texas A&M Kingsville for Winning Start to NCAA Championship

UCSD

Full recap to follow.

CARY, N.C. - Early start? No problem.

At least it wasn't for senior right-hander Mitch Hickey, as he combined with Kyle Lucke and Cameron Kurz on a masterful five-hit shutout to give the 22nd-ranked University of California San Diego a 4-0 victory over No. 26 Texas A&M Kingsville in both teams' opener at the 2018 NCAA Division II Championship Sunday at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.

UC San Diego's debut was scheduled for 3 p.m. ET (12 p.m. PT), but late Saturday night, right around 10:52 p.m. local time, the Tritons were informed that Sunday's schedule had been altered, with start time now at 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT). Hickey and his Tritons looked unfazed throughout, having arrived in Cary on Thursday night and been prepared by support staff as the tourney's lone West Coast representative.

The eight-team, eight-day, double-elimination tournament is being co-hosted by the University of Mount Olive and the Town of Cary, back in Cary after a one-year move last season to Grand Prairie, Texas.

Third-seeded UC San Diego, the designated home team as the higher seed, improved to 43-15 overall. The Tritons have now won 13 straight games and 23 of their last 25. Sixth-seeded Texas A&M Kingsville, the South Central Region champion out of the Lone Star Conference, fell to 41-16 and into Tuesday's elimination game.

UC San Diego advances in the winner's bracket, and will next take on eighth-ranked, second-seeded Columbus (Ga.) State in primetime on Tuesday night, May 29, at 4 p.m. PT (7 p.m. ET). Expected weather has completely wiped out Monday activity, hence Sunday's four-game marathon. The Cougars were 8-1 winners over seventh-ranked Mercyhurst in the contest right after the Tritons.

The Tritons jumped on the scoreboard within their first two batters as Brandon Stewart dropped a 1-2 pitch into left field for a leadoff single, took second on a bad pickoff attempt by starting pitcher Jarred Taylor, and scored on the next pitch as Tyler Durna roped his team-best 17th double just inside the right field line. UC San Diego was not able to get him around for a second run, however, as Durna got cut down on a fielder's choice to shortstop, around a couple of strikeouts.

Leadoff man Kohl Ullman ripped a one-out double to the warning track in left in the third, but Hickey stranded him there with a flyout to center and a dribbler to the left side that he himself bounded off the mound to gather before firing to Durna.

The Tritons then began the home third with a hit-by-pitch to Nick Kitzmann in the No. 9 hole, and an ensuing sacrifice by Stewart back at the top of the order. A flyout and groundout got the redshirt sophomore catcher no further than second.

The first walk of the game by either side was issued to Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) to begin the home fourth. That came after Hickey's first perfect frame in the top half as the Oregon State transfer who was in Omaha for the College World Series a year ago with the Beavers, struck out the side in order, swinging, looking and swinging. Shay Whitcomb followed the walk by getting plunked by Taylor's 0-1 offering, and the Tritons were in business. Following a mound visit, senior second baseman Justin Beck laid down a perfect bunt single down the third base line that Taylor got to, but had no play and didn't make a throw. A passed ball made it 2-0, but two swinging strikeouts around a nubber that the catcher handled with ease, potentially shut down a big inning.

A four-pitch walk, Hickey's first, opened the fifth, but a flyout and two ground balls to Eliopulos kept the Javelinas at bay.

Stewart ripped a double just inside the left field line to start the bottom of the fifth. Durna worked a five-pitch walk from new pitcher Lee May Gonzalez, and Zander Clarke was plunked to load the bases. Eliopulos lifted a sacrifice fly, and Whitcomb snuck a first-pitch, RBI single right through the middle for a 4-0 cushion. Durna had also tagged up and advanced to third on the Eliopulos fly ball.

Hickey's second 1-2-3 inning came in a shutdown sixth. He first rallied from a 3-0 deficit to get Manny Loredo looking, and followed that with an easy groundout to Whitcomb and routine fly ball to Stewart.

Texas A&M Kingsville put two men on in the eighth on a leadoff error and two-out single that went just over the glove of the leaping Whitcomb and into left center. Clarke, the junior rightfielder, ranged all the way into the right center gap and went down to a slide for a great catch that saved at least a run and ended the inning.

Kurz (Encinitas/La Costa Canyon HS) naturally took the ninth in such a critical game, despite it not being a save situation, and shut the door without any further drama. The senior closer struck out the 5-6-7 batters, in order, all swinging, to put his side in the winner's bracket.

Hickey (7-3) went 6.0 shutout innings, matching his longest outing of the season, allowing just three hits and one walk. He struck out six. Hickey got Ullman looking to begin the game, needing just three tosses. He worked around a two-out single in each of the first two innings.

Junior right-hander Kyle Lucke had handled the seventh and eighth as a bridge between Hickey and Kurz, with three strikeouts and just two singles surrendered.

Stewart finished 2-for-3 with a double, sacrifice and two runs. Durna was 1-for-3 with a double, walk, run and RBI. Eliopulos wound up 0-for-2, but with the walk, sacrifice fly, run and RBI. Whitcomb went 1-for-3 with a hit-by-pitch and RBI.

Taylor (5-1) gave up three runs, two of them earned, on four hits, one walk and two hit-by-pitches over four-plus frames. The senior right-hander fanned four, picking up his first losing decision. Taylor retired the side in order in the second, all on the infield with a popout, lineout and comebacker. Gonzalez set the Tritons down in order in the sixth, as did Seth Hubert in the ninth.

Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 34-18 over its 10 NCAA Championship appearances, including 10-5 at the finals site and 6-3 in Cary ... Sunday marked the first-ever meeting between the teams ... The Tritons are 23-9 outside of La Jolla, including a still-perfect 8-0 in neutral-site contests ... Alex Eliopulos is the only Triton to start or even appear in all 58 games ... Brandon Stewart batted leadoff and Shay Whitcomb fifth for the 14th time this season and 13th game in a row ... UC San Diego improved to a perfect 14-0 with Stewart in the leadoff spot ... Mitch Hickey made his 15th appearance as a Triton, drawing his 13th start of the season ... Nick Kitzmann's hit-by-pitch to lead off the third was his team-best 21st ... Stewart's third-inning sacrifice was his team-best ninth ... Eliopulos' fifth-inning sacrifice fly was his fourth ... Zander Clarke (85) and Eliopulos (72) remain 1-2 in the CCAA in RBI ... The Tritons have hit at least one double in 25 straight games, with 74 total in this stretch ... With two more doubles, UC San Diego continues to lead the CCAA with 123 ... The Tritons are 10-3 in Hickey starts, including wins in seven in a row since the senior's return to the rotation on April 13, with Hickey 5-0 with two no-decisions over those seven stints ... Hickey's fifth strikeout, to wrap up a 1-2-3 fourth in which he fanned the side in order, was milestone No. 500 for the Tritons as a team on the year, having already broken the school record on May 18 in Azusa ... The result marked UC San Diego's first win in Cary since a 6-3 victory over Franklin Pierce on May 27, 2010, and the Tritons' first shutout at an NCAA Championship since Kyle Goodbrand's complete-game effort, 10-0, against St. Thomas Aquinas last June 1 in Grand Prairie, Texas ... UC San Diego pitchers retired seven of nine leadoff batters, with a walk in the fifth and error in the eighth ... This is the Tritons' longest win streak under Eric Newman and best since a 19-gamer late in 2011 ... The shutout was UC San Diego's third in 2018 ... The original start time of the game was 3 p.m. ET, but was pulled up to 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT) late Saturday night ... UC San Diego has now played games beginning at 9:14 p.m. PT and 7 a.m. PT this postseason, over the past 11 days, and won both.

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