A baseball adage as old as wool uniforms states that the breaks of the game, the highs and lows, the hot and cold stretches, all even out over the course of a season. UC Irvine junior first baseman Connor Spencer can, thank goodness, finally attest to just that.
After beginning the season hitless in his first 19 at-bats, the 2013 Big West Conference batting champion has righted himself. He is 11 for 16 over his last four games, including a two-for-four performance Saturday to lead the Anteaters to a 4-2 win over visiting UC Riverside.
The victory, which included a second consecutive impressive start by sophomore pitcher Elliot Surrey, and a nation-leading 11th save from Sam Moore, clinched the three-game series for the 'Eaters (18-8, 2-0 in conference), who are tied for the conference lead with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Long Beach State.
Spencer was one of seven Anteaters to contribute to the eight-hit attack, but the lone UCI player to get more than one. His line-drive single to center field that drove in Grant Palmer, who led off the fifth inning with a single and moved to third on a Kris Paulino single, was the game-winning run batted in. It was Spencer's 18th RBI of the season, second on the team to All-American Taylor Sparks (22).
Spencer, who added a single in the seventh to continue a four-game binge that included a four-for-four night with his only home run of the season at Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday, has upped his batting average from .316 to .379 in that stretch.
"He's a really good hitter," said UCI Coach Mike Gillespie who pointed out that among juniors who began their Division I collegiate career in 2012, Spencer has the nation's best cumulative batting average (.350) That mark spans 477 at-bats, including a .373 mark to earn second-team all-conference recognition last season.
"That's a big deal," Gillespie said.
Gillespie said like Spencer, he was confident that his No. 3 hitter would climb out of his early funk.
"I certainly would have preferred that he start the season 15 for 20, but you'd have to believe [he would come around] because there is no obvious weakness. He's not a mess on off-speed [pitches], he's hard to jam, he gets to pitches and he's confident too, always has been.
"I almost wish he wasn't that good," Gillespie said of Spencer. "I was dreaming for a long time that we'd hold onto him [rather than being drafted by a major league team in June]. But that dream has turned into a nightmare."
Spencer said his opening struggles created his own personal nightmare.
"Ever since that first hit against Wright State, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders," Spencer said. "Zero for 19, oh my goodness gracious, did I need that hit."
Spencer has been so hot, one might suggest his prowess at the plate has even rubbed off on his roommate, redshirt sophomore Jonathan Munoz, who entered Saturday's game seven for 12 in his previous three games, only to go hitless against the Highlanders (11-12, 0-2).
Surrey, who threw a four-hit shutout a week earlier against Grand Canyon, worked 62/3 innings Saturday, allowing six hits and two runs. But both runs were, however, unearned, courtesy of a dropped fly ball in left by Ryan Cooper in the fourth to allow the visitors to claim a 2-1 lead.
With no earned runs allowed in his last two starts, Surrey, who earned the win to improve to 4-3, has pared his earned-run average from 4.50 to 2.56.
"I'm impressed with him," Gillespie said of Surrey, who struck out five and walked one before exiting having thrown 100 pitches. "Like it is in all sports and in every skill, the confidence factor is key and I think he sort of has that right now."
Senior Jimmy Litchfield worked a perfect inning and sophomore Moore got the last four outs to close it.
A two-out single by junior designated hitter Chris Rabago drove in the first run of the game in the UCI third inning and an RBI single in the fourth by junior catcher Jerry McClanahan knotted the score at 2-2.
Sparks followed Spencer's RBI single in the fifth with one of his own to finalize the scoring.
Riverside right-hander Zach Verela allowed eight hits and three earned runs in 61/3 innings to absorb his first loss in four decisions this season.
The series concludes Sunday at 1 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 4, UC Riverside 2
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCR 000 200 000 – 2 7 1
UCI 001 120 00x – 4 8 1
Varela, Stewart (7) and Ellis; Surrey, Litchfield (7), Moore (8) and McClanahan. W – Surrey, 3-2. L – Varela, 3-1. Sv – Moore (11). 2B – Hough (UCR), Sparks (UCI).