No matter how good a baseball team might be, it is very hard to win after spotting a talented opponent a seven-run lead in the first inning.
That was UC Irvine’s reality on Monday night against Stanford in the championship game of the four-team Stanford Regional of the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal pounced on the Anteaters for seven runs and eight hits before the Anteaters had a chance to grab a bat and held on for an 11-8 win.
The loss ends UCI’s season at 43-18, with a Big West Conference record for wins in a season, their first regional appearance since 2014 and a determined effort against a solid Stanford team. The Cardinal (36-15) advance to a best-of-three super regional against Texas Tech next weekend in Lubbock, Texas, with the winner moving on to the eight-team College World Series.
Nathan Church hit a first-inning home run for UCI and went 4 for 6 on the night to punctuate a regional performance that saw him go 13 for 26 over five games. Dillon Tatum hit a two-run home run in the third to set the program record for single-season homers (15).
UCI head coach Ben Orloff knew he would use a lot of pitchers in the Anteaters’ fifth game in four days, but he was comfortable starting with Game 1 star Mike Frias, who threw a complete game two-hitter in a victory over Nevada on Friday night.
But Frias gave up four straight hits to start the game and was removed after the fifth batter. Eddie Park hit the first pitch for a single and Tim Tawa slugged a 3-and-1 fastball for a two-run home run.
Brock Jones hit a nubber to the triangle between the mound and third base for a single and Kody Huff doubled to left to put runners on second and third. Christian Robinson hit a deep fly to score Jones.
Orloff pulled Frias, but Stanford kept producing against reliever Gordon Ingebritson. Nick Brueser hit a sacrifice fly to center to make it 4-0. None of the next three batters got the ball out of the infield but loaded the bases regardless.
Drew Bowser reached on a Justin Torres fielding error, Tommy Troy beat out a slow roller to third and a bunt single loaded the bases. Park then singled up the middle to score two more runs, and Tawa singled to right for another and a 7-0 lead.
Church homered in the first and Tatum homered in the bottom of the second, but Stanford added single runs in the second and third to make it 9-3.
UCI scratched back but struggled with runners in scoring position – stranding two on with no outs in the third, stranding Torres after a leadoff triple in the fifth, and eventually leaving 12 runners on base. The Big West champions also committed four errors in the first three innings, and five of Stanford’s runs were unearned.
The Anteaters trailed 11-5 going into the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, Stanford relievers walked the bases load and Luke Spillane’s cue ball double to right field scored two to cut the margin to 11-7.
Stanford coach Dave Esquer’s plan was to tag-team the UCI lineup. Four of the first five hitters are left-handed, so the Cardinal started left-hander Drew Dowd.
Thereafter, the Cardinal flopped pitchers according to the Anteaters’ lineup – left-handers at the top of the order and right-handers at the bottom. They went through eight pitchers by game’s end, with closer Zach Grech facing 11 batters in two innings.
Grech got two quick outs in the ninth before Spillane had his third hit of the game. Left-handed pinch hitter Jake Palmer was then semi-intentionally walked by Grech.
Stanford went to left-hander Jacob Palisch to face the UCI lefties. Church lined a single to left to score a run and keep the inning alive, but Palisch retired Mike Peabody on a high fly to center.
The Anteaters scored 46 runs in their five games. Of the 30 runs they allowed, 14 came in two innings of play, and 11 of the runs allowed were unearned.
More to come on this story.
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