Photo by: Josh Lavallee
Aaron Kim (20), Blake Baumgartner and Steven Schuknecht (23) celebrate Baumgartner's home run in Saturday's first game.

Champions STILL! No. 6 Tritons Power Past Host Azusa Pacific for Third Straight West Region Crown

UC San Diego

AZUSA, Calif. - Seniors R.J. Prince and Steven Schuknecht were among many heroes who powered No. 6 University of California San Diego to a pair of triumphs over No. 24 Azusa Pacific University Saturday at Cougar Baseball Complex, to earn a third consecutive West Region crown and advance past the first-ever NCAA Division II Baseball Championship West Super Regional.

UC San Diego pulled out a come-from-behind 6-5 decision to begin the day and force the if-necessary, winter-take-all decider. The Tritons then broke out their heavy lumber and rolled to a 16-5 victory to defend their back-to-back West crowns.

Prince hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning of the first game to overturn a 5-4 deficit. He added a two-run single and another two-run blast in the decider. Schuknecht, a fourth-year Triton who has already completed his undergraduate degree, totaled four home runs on the day, with three in the second game and a career-high six RBI.

With the results, second-seeded UC San Diego improves 40-14 overall, achieving 40 wins for the third season in a row under eighth-year head coach Eric Newman. Top seed Azusa Pacific ends the campaign at 40-15. APU had won Friday's opener, 13-2.

UC San Diego returns to Cary, N.C., for a second straight year, with the 2017 NCAA Championship having been in Grand Prairie, Texas, where the Tritons were national runners-up. The eight-team, double-elimination tournament will run Saturday to Saturday, June 1-8. For the second time, the eight region champions will be reseeded by the NCAA committee, likely on Sunday, with UC San Diego's first opponent, and date of first game, thus not currently known.

Game One - No. 6 UCSD 6, No. 24 APU 5
Junior centerfielder Cole Kleszcz, the Pacific West Conference (PacWest) Player of the Year ahead of top regional accolades, took the second pitch of the game out to left for his 27th home run of the season, which leads all NCAA divisions.

Sophomore shortstop Shay Whitcomb, the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Most Valuable Player, got that run right back with likewise his second home run in as many super regional games. The Newbury Park product took a one-out, 1-2 offering and drove it to left field for his 11th long ball of the season. Alex Eliopulos (La Jolla/La Jolla HS) followed by stinging a double off the wall in right, and Blake Baumgartner was hit by a pitch, but a 6-4-3 double play limited the damage for APU.

Azusa Pacific began the second with a single and a walk, but Will Stroud chopped the next pitch to Eliopulos, who stepped on the third base bag and fired across the diamond to help Triton starter Preston Mott. A wild pitch moved Evan Banks to third as the go-ahead run, but an easy groundout to Whitcomb kept him there.

The fourth opened with back-to-back singles for Griffen Herrera and Justin Gomez. Mott even fell behind 2-0 to Tido Robles, but rallied to get the PacWest Freshman of the Year to fly out to senior centerfielder Christopher Schasteen, and Banks to pop up to Baumgartner. Going 2-0 again to Stroud, Mott got the ground ball to Whitcomb.

With one gone in the home fourth, Baumgartner obliterated the first pitch of his at-bat to the spot he likes best, out to right center for an opposite-field blast that broke the 1-1 deadlock. It was his 12th, tying him for the team lead with fellow redshirt sophomore Aaron Kim. Kim followed by expertly working an eight-pitch walk, and cleverly went first to third on Keenan Brigman's subsequent single to center, barely sliding in under the third baseman's tag. True freshman Ryan McNally then came up big, dumping an 0-2 pitch in front of the leftfielder for an RBI single and 3-1 edge.

Mott got the leadoff man in the fifth but walked the next batter, giving way to Teddy Stuka. The junior right-hander kept Kleszcz in the yard, but Prince was playing so deep that his routine-looking fly ball landed just in front of the charging Triton senior for a single. Eliopulos then made a tremendous play on Osvaldo Tovalin's slow chopper, with Baumgartner making the stretch to gather at first. The Cougar runners had both advanced, but Eliopulos made a second straight spectacular play, snaring a well-hit grounder by Herrera and firing across to strand both men.

The sixth was another stressful inning in the field for UC San Diego. Stuka fanned the leadoff man, but he reached first on a wild pitch. Robles followed with a first-pitch single through the right side and it was trouble all over again. Pinch-hitter Max Tsai failed to get the bunt down and Stuka struck him out. He did the same to the next batter, before a soft pop-up to McNally in shallow center to get out of it.

The Tritons added a single tally in the sixth, courtesy again of a third long ball for the contest. This time, it was senior designated hitter Steven Schuknecht, who connected on a 2-0 toss and produced just his second home run of the season to the right of center. The Palm Desert product had homered almost to the same location a year ago in the West Region final against APU, a pinch-hit, solo blast to move the Tritons within a single run at 7-6 in the eighth before they walked it off in the ninth.

The seventh opened with APU's first run since the second pitch of the afternoon, as the Cougars finally ended a run of five consecutive zeroes thrown up with maximum effort by Triton pitching. Joe Quire, Jr., hit a blast over the netting in right to pull to within 4-2, and Stuka’s 3-2 pitch to Kleszcz missed the mark for a walk. Following a mound visit, Tovalin lifted his 19th home run, and second in as many days, to right to forge a 4-4 tie and force a second pitching change for UC San Diego.

Sophomore right-hander Cameron Leonard’s first pitch was sent to right by Herrera and got past Prince for a triple. Gomez then sent a 3-2 toss to left center for an RBI single to regain a 5-4 edge for the Cougars.

Still again, the Tritons didn’t go away. Schasteen singled to left on a 2-2 pitch to lead off the home seventh, and fellow senior Prince sent the very next toss deep to left center for his sixth home run, all coming over the last 20 games after having not hit a single one last year as a junior transfer. That made it 6-5 in favor of UC San Diego.

Leonard then breezed through a 1-2-3 eighth, getting a flyout to Prince, a called third strike on Quire, and a lineout off the bat of Kleszcz, directly at Brigman in left.

Mott went 5.0 innings and allowed one run on four hits and two walks, striking out three. The senior left-hander retired the Cougars in order in the third, getting Kleszcz to pop out to Whitcomb who ranged into center for the grab, and inducing a comebacker from the also-dangerous Tovalin for the third out.

Whitcomb was 2-for-3 with the home run, hit-by-pitch, run and RBI. Eliopulos went 1-for-4 with his 13th double.

Junior right-hander Nick Estrella gave up four runs on six hits, one walk and two hit-by-pitches over 6.0 frames. He struck out four, and was perfect in the second and third.

Game Two – No. 6 UCSD 16, No. 24 APU 5
UC San Diego loaded the bases with no outs in the second on a five-pitch walk to Kim to lead off, and singles by Schnuknecht to center and Brigman to the opposite field through the right side. Sophomore right-hander Declan Kearney got McNally swinging, and Schasteen to fly out to right, too shallow to be a sacrifice fly with Kleszcz’s arm. However, Prince kept his stellar bat going by lining a two-out, two-run single to right center for the early 2-0 lead.

The Tritons loaded the bases for a second straight frame in the third, on two walks around a hit-by-pitch, to chase Kearney. Brigman greeted John Szczesny with a first-pitch sacrifice f ly to plate Baumgartner, but the junior right-hander then got McNally to bounce out to second base to minimize the damage and keep it manageable at 3-0.

Mychael Goudreau beat out an infield single to begin the home third and moved immediately to second on a wild pitch. Conlon struck out No. 9 hitter Casey Dykstra swinging, and then got the home plate umpire to ring up Kleszcz on a very close 3-2 pitch. Tovalin flew out to Schasteen and the Tritons were through another frame.

UC San Diego struck for three more in the fourth, the big blow another two-run home by Prince, to left center. That was after Schasteen reached on an infield error to lead off. Whitcomb beat out an infield single and Eliopulos dropped a single in front of Kleszcz in right, ahead of Baumgartner’s RBI single up the middle. The throw looked like it beat Whitcomb’s slide, but the catcher, Gomez, wasn’t able to grasp the ball. The Tritons loaded the bases still with nobody out on Kim’s single through the left side, but three flyouts around a pitching change, limited the damage to just the three runs.

The Cougars proceeded to load the bases themselves with no outs, and after freshman right-hander Michael Mitchell took over for Conlon, scored a trio on a right-sided groundout, RBI singles by Robles to right and Goudreau through the left side. Mitchell then induced a ground ball behind the second-base bag, where Whitcomb gathered, stepped and fired. Baum corralled it on the other end, with a close call going the Tritons’ way to end the inning on the 6-3 twin killing.

The Tritons went right back to work and got a first-pitch double into the left field corner by Schasteen, his third on the year, and a four-pitch walk to Prince. David Wylie got Whitcomb to hit into a 5-4-3 double play before exiting.

Sophomore right-hander Noah Conlon went 3.0 innings and gave up three runs on four hits and no walks, striking out five. Conlon was the first Triton in the Super Regional to make it through the first without allowing a solo home run, after Tovalin in Game 1 and Kleszcz in Game 2, ducking around a two-out Herrera single.

Conlon was perfect in the second with two strikeouts to give him three in a row, followed by a flyout to Schasteen.

Kearney (6-2) allowed three runs on three hits, two walks and two hit-by-pitches over 2.1 frames. He struck out one.

Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 39-22 (.639) in its 11th NCAA Division II Championship appearance … Azusa Pacific still leads the all-time series, 23-17 … The Tritons are 6-2 against the Cougars in NCAA postseason action, including 5-1 in Azusa the past three years … Alex Eliopulos started his 129th and 130th straight games, all at third base … Eliopulos, first baseman Blake Baumgartner and shortstop Shay Whitcomb are the only Tritons to start all 54 games in 2019 … Senior rightfielder R.J. Prince was in the leadoff spot for the 17th and 18th straight games … The Tritons are 15-9 away from home, including 15-7 in road games … Game One: Preston Mott drew his 11th start of the season, making his 14th appearance, and 54th start of his illustrious career, No. 2 in the program record book for at least the Division II era (since 2001) … By getting through the third, Mott became just the eighth pitcher in program history to reach the 300-inning milestone for his career … Whitcomb’s first-inning home run was the 16th of his college career … Baumgartner’s fourth-inning home run was his 17th … Game Two: Baumgartner’s third-inning walk was his league-leading 45th.

About UC San Diego Athletics
With 30 national team championships, nearly 150 individual titles and the top student-athlete graduation rate among Division II institutions in the United States, the UC San Diego intercollegiate athletics program annually ranks as one of the most successful in the country. The Tritons sponsor 23 intercollegiate sport programs that compete on the NCAA Division I and II levels and, in summer 2020, will transition into full Division I status as a member of the Big West Conference. UC San Diego student-athletes exemplify the academic ideals of one of the world's preeminent institutions, graduating at an average rate of 91 percent. A total of 80 Tritons have earned Academic All-America honors, while 37 have earned prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships. In competition, more than 1,300 UC San Diego student-athletes have earned All-America honors.

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