RIVERSIDE — The UC Irvine baseball team gave new meaning to the term seventh-inning stretch Friday. And, like a rubber band pulled to its limit, the Anteaters' bullpen snapped to help host UC Riverside claim a 7-5 Big West Conference triumph at the Riverside Sports Complex.
The win drops UCI, ranked No. 21 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Assn., to 16-7, 0-2 in conference. It's UCI's worst start in conference play since 2006, when it lost its first four and six of its first seven against Big West competition. That year, the Anteaters won 10 of their final 14 conference games to finish third and advance to the first of six straight NCAA Regional appearances.
Rebounding as effectively this season, however, will prove difficult without the aid of a reliable bullpen, which was the Anteaters' clear weakness Friday.
UCI used five pitchers to get out of a seventh inning in which the Highlanders rallied for three runs to erase a 5-4 deficit. In the inning, Riverside (12-9, 2-0) benefited from two singles, two walks, two wild pitches, a hit batter, a passed ball and a balk to turn the tide for good.
"The wheels came off like you can't believe," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of his pitching staff's collective stumble in the seventh. "It was four different [relievers] that rattled and collapsed."
Junior Kyle Hooper, who retired the first three he faced after inheriting a runner from starter Matt Whitehouse that eventually scored on a groundout to pull the hosts within 5-4, then worked a scoreless sixth inning to maintain the lead.
But Riverside leadoff man Joe Chavez greeted Hooper with a double to open the seventh. When Hooper fell behind the next hitter, 2-0, bouncing the second ball past catcher Ronnie Shaeffer to move the would-be tying run to third, UCI pitching coach Danny Bibona summoned junior Evan Brock from the bullpen.
Brock's first pitch also bounced past Shaeffer for a wild pitch that tied the score and Brock threw ball four to place the walk, and eventually the loss, on Hooper's ledger.
After a line single to right, Bibona called upon freshman left-hander Elliot Surrey, against whom Riverside cleanup hitter David Andriese tried unsuccessfully to drop a sacrifice bunt, fouling two attempts off. After a balk advanced the two baserunners just as a successful bunt would have, Andriese singled to right against a drawn-in infield to give Riverside a 6-5 lead.
Next off the bullpen plank was junior Phil Ferragamo, who issued a walk on which ball four got past Shaeffer for a passed ball to allow the final run to score.
After a subsequent sacrifice bunt and a hit batter, sophomore Sam Moore came on to establish order with a strikeout and a groundout.
But UCI was unable to recover.
"It was really, really disappointing," Gillespie said of the comprehensive pitching meltdown. "Surrey's a rookie, so maybe you can alibi for him, but none of those other guys.
"And, as it turns out, Riverside can hit pretty darn good," Gillespie said of the Highlanders, who had 12 hits and now have all six extra-base hits in the series, in which UCI has 20 singles.
Connor Spencer, Shaeffer and Taylor Sparks all went two for four to pace UCI.
Spencer, a sophomore first baseman, is now four for eight in the series to up his conference-leading batting average to .424.
Shaeffer, one of five Anteaters to drive in a run, now has 20 RBIs to share the team lead with Dominique Taylor.
The series concludes on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Riverside 7, UC Irvine 5
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCI 003 020 000 – 5 10 1
UCR 030 010 30x – 7 12 0
Whitehouse, Hooper (5), Brock (7), Surrey (7), Ferragamo (7), Moore (7) and Shaeffer; Smigelski, Garcia (4), Frank (9) and Steponovich, Ellis (8). W – Garcia, 3-2. L –Hooper, 1-1. Sv – Frank (5). 2B – Chavez (UCR) 2, Davidson (UCR), Hough (UCR).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun