IRVINE — The first cut has, in fact, been deep enough to propel the UC Irvine baseball team into the upper echelon of the Big West Conference in recent years.
After junior Andrew Thurman threw a complete-game four-hitter to fuel a 7-1 victory over visiting Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the first of a three-game series between Big West teams that came in tied for third place, UCI is hoping the same holds true this spring.
The Anteaters (30-15, 12-7 in conference) moved into sole possession of third, one game behind second-place Cal State Northridge, as the offense backed Thurman with 14 hits for a commanding triumph that pleased Coach Mike Gillespie to no end.
UCI also upped its record in conference series openers to 36-3 since it dropped the final two series debuts in 2008. This season, UCI is 6-1 in conference series openers, best in the Big West.
"Clearly it was our best performance [of the season], all things considered," Gillespie said. "[The Mustangs (32-15, 11-8)] are good, their [starting pitcher Joey Wagman] has been good and Thurman was really good. We had quality at-bats up and down the lineup. It was a good night for us."
Thurman allowed back-to-back doubles in the second inning as the Mustangs posted their lone run. From then on, the visitors managed only two hits and Thurman faced the minimum after a one-out double in the fourth, en route to his second complete game. Thurman, now 5-3, struck out seven and did not issue a walk to trim his earned-run average to 2.98.
"Basically, I try to go out and set the tone for the series," Thurman, projected to go as high as the second round in next month's Major League draft, said. "Cal Poly is a good club, so it was good to take this one from them."
Gillespie said Thurman's command of his changeup helped him turn in a performance that was, well, commanding. And Thurman agreed.
"The changeup has been up and down this year, but tonight I definitely had it and was able to use it well," said Thurman, who helped pin Wagman with only his third loss in 13 decisions. "I used it in pretty much any count, to any hitter, left-handed or right-handed, so it helped a lot tonight."
Now, UCI will hope to change up a trend of losing the second game of a conference series when the two teams play again Saturday at 1 p.m.
UCI is 2-4 in Game 2 against Big West foes this season, then 4-2 in conference series finales, the latter thanks largely to the pitching of junior Andrew Morales, who is 9-0.
Saturday's starting assignment falls to junior Matt Whitehouse (4-5), whom UCI will count upon to be solid.
"It's just consistently throwing quality strikes," Gillespie said of the biggest concern with Whitehouse this season. "When Whitehouse threw last week [a 5-3 loss at UC Santa Barbara] it was OK, not good, good. It's got to be good."
Five UCI hitters had at least two hits and sophomore third baseman Taylor Sparks was three for five with two runs batted it. Sparks hit his ninth home run of the season to cap a two-run first inning and later added a triple. Sparks came in leading Big West hitters in conference play with a .411 batting average and 23 RBIs.
Senior right fielder Scott Gottschling went two for four with two RBIs and sophomore first baseman Connor Spencer, the conference's leading hitter overall at .380, drove in two runs and went one for four.
Senior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer and senior left fielder Jeff Stephens, who stole home with two outs in the fourth inning to up the lead to 3-1, were both two for four.
Senior shortstop Chris Rabago was two for five and like Spencer and Taylor, scored twice.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 7, Cal Poly SLO 1
SCORE BY INNINGS
CPSLO 010 000 000 – 1 4 1
UCI 201 100 21x – 7 14 0
Wagman, Zandona (7), Johnson (8) and Hoo, Stewart (8); Thurman and Shaeffer. W – Thurman, 5-3. L – Wagman, 10-3. 2B – Rabago (UCI), Allen(CPSLO), Armindarez (CPSLO) , Gottschling (UCI), Torres (CPSLO).3B – Sparks (UCI). HR – Sparks (UCI).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun