IRVINE — There are 24 games remaining in the UC Irvine baseball team's regular season. But after dropping the rubber game of a three-game Big West Conference series against Cal State Fullerton on Sunday, the Anteaters, for the first time since missing the postseason in 2005, may simply be playing out the string.
"We're all disappointed, of course we are," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said after a 5-3 setback to the No. 12-ranked Titans (23-12, 7-2 in conference), who are tied with Long Beach State atop the conference standings after three weeks of Big West play. "[Sunday] was a critical game. Now, the next one is more important. We all know the numbers and we know who we've played and who is ahead of us. In our case, we've just got to be the cliche: we've got to keep grinding and do what we can possibly do."
Short of 22 wins in the final 24 contests, which would give the Anteaters (18-14, 4-5) a 40-win regular-season, or climbing all the way back to claim the conference title that would create an automatic berth as one of 64 NCAA Regional participants, there appears little UCI can do to sway influence its way when it comes to an at-large berth.
According to the NCAA website, UCI begins this week with a ratings percentage index of 68. Outside two dates against UCLA (an RPI of 7) and one with San Diego (19), UCI plays only one team with an RPI below 100 (Long Beach State, which plays host to the 'Eaters on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Blair Field, has an RPI of 70).
So, barring that conference crown, even a monumental streak of victories figures to leave UCI even lower on the RPI rankings than it is now. And, without an RPI at least in the mid-60s, an at-large NCAA berth is more than a long shot.
UCI's offensive shortcomings were exposed by the Titans Sunday, as the hosts managed just three hits against four pitchers. Freshman starter Graham Wiest allowed three runs, two earned, in 51/3 innings, before relievers Dave Birosak, Willie Kuhl and Michael Lorenzen, who notched his 12th save, combined for 32/3 innings of hitless relief.
"Well, we are what we are and its a little tough to sugarcoat what we are offensively," Gillespie said. We've been in  of these [games decided by three or fewer runs], a few of which we've won [UCI is 12-8 in those games, including a 6-5 mark in one-run contests and a 4-1 record in three-run verdicts]. And we've had lots of games in which we've gotten [three to seven] hits. That's what we are."
UCI, in fact, has between three and eight hits in 20 games. It is 7-13 in those games.
"There is virtually no margin for error with us," said Gillespie, who lamented three baserunning miscues that led to Anteater runners being thrown out at home and third. as well as picked off first base on Sunday. "We can't walk them, we can't throw it away and we can't kick it. We can't give away any extra opportunities or turnovers. We can't fumble."
UCI took a 2-0 lead in the second inning, thanks largely to a throwing error by Cal State Fullerton catcher Matt Wallach. Wallach threw wildly to third on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Christian Ramirez, allowing Connor Spencer to score and Kris Paulino, who had walked following Spencer's inning-opening single, to reach third.
Paulino came home on Jeff Stephens' ground ball to short.
The Titans pulled even with a two-run third, keyed by a two-run double by shortstop Matt Chapman.
It remained even until freshman designated hitter J.D. Davis yanked a two-run homer over the left-field fence with two outs in the sixth. It was only the fourth homer of the season for Fullerton, which had not gone deep since March 13.
UCI pulled within 4-3 in the sixth, when senior first baseman Jordan Fox doubled to start the frame and scored on a one-out groundout by Paulino.
The Titans added an insurance run on three hits in the eighth and Lorenzen worked a perfect ninth to make it 12 straight Anteaters retired.
Paulino tripled with one out in the fourth, but was thrown out at the plate on Ramirez's grounder to first.
Fox had four hits in the series and Paulino was three for seven to join Crumlich and Ramirez as 'Eaters with three hits in the series.
But the Nos. 7-9 hitters in Sunday's lineup were hitless in a combined 21 at-bats during the series.
It was the first time UCI, now in fourth place in the Big West, has lost back-to-back conference series since 2010.
San Diego State visits UCI, hitting .264 as a team, Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
Big West Conference
Cal State Fullerton 5,
UC Irvine 3
SCORE BY INNINGS
CSF 002 002 010 – 5 11 2
UCI 020 001 000 – 3 3 1
Wiest, Birosak (6), Kuhl (7), Lorenzen (9) and Wallach; Litchfield, Ferragamo (3), Merten (8), Parmenter (9) and McClanahan. W – Wiest, 3-3. L – Ferragamo, 3-4. Sv – Lorenzen (12). 2B – Chapman (CSF), Hutting (CSF), Fox (UCI). 3B – Paulino (UCI). HR – Davis (CSF).
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun