The UC Irvine baseball team figured it would come to this.
While it was steamrolling over its first five Big West Conference opponents, the Anteaters consistently mentioned that it was how they finished in the final three conference series that would determine whether they were worthy of a return to the postseason.
The gauntlet begins Friday night for No. 23-ranked UCI (33-14, 14-1 in the Big West), when it visits No. 7-ranked Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (39-9, 14-4) in a battle of the top two teams in the conference standings.
The Anteaters, who have won eight straight and 12 in a row against conference foes, bring a 1.5-game lead into the three-game series, which features 6 p.m. games Friday and Saturday, and a 1 p.m. contest Sunday.
UCI can retain first place by winning just one of three games, but the Mustangs, who have won three in a row to rebound from a four-game losing streak, can vault into the top spot with a sweep. Cal Poly is 25-2 at home this season.
Friday's opener features heralded starting pitchers in UCI senior All-American Andrew Morales and Mustangs junior left-hander Matt Imhoff. Morales is 8-0 with an 0.91 earned-run average and is 18-0 in his two seasons at UCI. Imhoff is 8-3 with a 2.47 ERA.
Saturday's game pits UCI sophomore lefty Elliott Surrey (6-2 with a 2.09 ERA) against freshman Justin Calomeri (7-2, 3.92), while Sunday's finale will see UCI senior Evan Brock (8-3, 2.85) square off against sophomore Casey Bloomquist (10-1, 1.40).
Senior first baseman Connor Spencer, the reigning Big West Player of the Week, is 11 for 21 in his last five games (.524) to lift his season average to .382. Spencer, the 2013 Big West batting champion, also leads the 'Eaters with 37 runs batted in.
Other offensive catalysts for UCI include senior third baseman Taylor Sparks (.309 with four homers, 27 RBIs and a team-best seven stolen bases), sophomore designated hitter Jonathan Munoz (.350 with 12 RBIs), junior catcher Jerry McClanahan (.303 with 29 RBIs) and sophomore leadoff man Grant Palmer.
UCI junior closer Sam Moore has 22 saves, a conference single-season record, and needs only two more to match the NCAA mark set by UCLA's David Berg. Moore, who has blown just one save opportunity, has a 1.38 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 39 innings.
Cal Poly, guided for the 12th year by former Orange Coast College player Larry Lee, leads the conference in hitting (.298, 38 points better than the 'Eaters), while UCI's team ERA of 2.60 is second to Cal State Fullerton's 2.11 in the Big West. The Mustangs' rank third in ERA among Big West staffs at 2.95.
The Mustangs' lineup is led by sophomore Mark Mathias (.395 with one homer, 31 RBIs and 11 steals), Chris Hoo (.308 with 34 RBIs) and junior Nick Torres (.306 with four homers and 40 RBIs).
Also having a strong season for Cal Poly is junior reliever Reed Reilly, who is 3-1 with eight saves and a 1.46 ERA.
UCI closes out the conference schedule at home against Cal State Fullerton (May 16-18) and at Long Beach State (May 22-24).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun