Though there is a proliferation of damaged elbow ligaments among Major League Baseball pitchers this season, UC Irvine senior Jimmy Litchfield has managed to avoid the MRI machine during his four collegiate seasons on the bump.
Making his school-career-record 114th appearance on Tuesday, Litchfield worked two scoreless innings to close out a 10-2 nonconference win over a scuffling UCLA team at Anteater Ballpark.
It was the third straight Tuesday victory for UCI, which had lost three straight Tuesday contests before that. The 'Eaters finish the regular season with a 6-5 record in the crucial Tuesday nonconference clashes that can help propel a team into the postseason if it doesn't wind up winning its conference.
The Anteaters (35-16) are atop the Big West Conference standings (15-3) with six conference games left (Fullerton this weekend at UCI and a visit to Long Beach State on May 22-24), but a win over the defending NCAA champions never hurts, even though Coach John Savage's injury-ravaged Bruins are now 23-26-1 and 1-10-1 in their last 12.
"It is significant," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of his team's 10th win in its last 12 games, in what Litchfield said was only the second Tuesday victory over UCLA in his four seasons.
"This was big to get ready for this weekend, especially with the big rivalry coming up," said Litchfield, whose slow-slower-slowest barrage of changeups has put more stress on opposing hitters than his left, pitching elbow. "UCLA has always had our number during my four years, so it was good to finally get them in the last one."
Litchfield, who moved ahead of NCAA career saves leader Blair Erickson on UCI's all-time appearances list, has amassed 156 1/3 innings as an Anteater, with all but two of his appearances out of the bullpen. He is 9-4 with seven saves (3-1 with two saves this season), and his career earned-run average is 3.11. He has struck out 83, including two Tuesday, and walked only 28.
"He has been really important around here," Gillespie said of Litchfield. "His stuff doesn't scare you, but he's a competitor . He'll take on anybody and he has gotten a lot of big outs and a lot of big innings for us."
Litchfield said he is gratified to have the record, but he was humble about the math.
"It just means I've had four healthy seasons," said the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder out of Sonora High in La Habra. "It has been four really fun years and this is just kind of the ending to it. I've thrown lots of changeups, so there has never been any concern about my elbow."
UCI had some fun at the Bruins' expense as the visitors made four errors, which led to four unearned runs for the 'Eaters.
UCI's three errors were the most it has had in 19 games. But some quality pitching by starter Evan Manarino, Mitch Merten and Litchfield helped overcome the miscues. Merten earned the win with 2 2/3 scoreless innings, evening his record at 2-2.
Offensively, UCI rapped out 12 hits and also benefited from five walks and UCLA pitchers hit four batters.
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer went three for four with three runs (he was hit by a pitch twice), while Grant Palmer and Jerry McClanahan each had two hits and one run batted in for the winners.
Junior third baseman Taylor Sparks drove in two runs with a booming triple off the left-field fence, during a four-run fourth inning in which the 'Eaters batted around.
The triple was the 14th of his career for Sparks, who is tied with former major leaguer Brady Anderson for third on the school's all-time list. Sparks is now chasing co-record-holders Rod Spence and Jeff Malinoff, who each had 17 in the early 1970s.
UCI, which will complete its home schedule on Sunday, is chasing what would be its first postseason berth in three seasons.
UC Irvine 10, UCLA 2
SCORE B Y INNINGS
UCLA 000 020 000 – 2 7 4
UCI 110 402 20x – 10 12 3
Dyer, Burke (4), Schuh (6), Ceja (7), Berg (8) and Ziele; Manarino, Merten (5), Litchfield (8) and McClanahan. W – Merten, 2-2. L – Dyer, 6-54. 2B – Ziele (UCLA), Chatterton (UCLA), Palmer (UCI). 3B – Rabago (UCI), Sparks.