Up was down, reality trumped perception and disappointment ruled the day for the UC Irvine baseball team Friday night.
Cal State Fullerton must be in town.
The visiting Titans, who are scuffling in fifth place, unranked by Baseball America for the last five weeks and virtually assured of ending a run of 22 straight seasons in an NCAA regional, looked like the team college baseball fans have become accustomed to in a 9-1 Big West Conference victory.
Playing for the first time in a month for Coach Rick Vanderhook, who came off a 16-game absence while on paid administrative leave, the Titans (26-22, 9-10 in conference) battered UCI senior ace Andrew Morales, who absorbed the first loss in 20 decisions as an Anteater.
Morales surrendered eight hits and five runs, all earned, in five innings. He struck out eight and walked only one, but was touched for three doubles and a triple in his worst outing of the season. His earned-run average rose from 1.02 to 1.77.
Morales, 40-1 as a collegian coming in, including a 21-1 record at Rio Hondo Community College, fell to 9-1 this season, 19-1 at UCI.
Fullerton sophomore Thomas Eshelman earned the victory to improve to 7-3, despite walking three, which equaled the total of bases on balls he had issued in 103 1/3 innings coming in.
The loss was the third straight in conference play for UCI (35-17, 15-4), which fell into second place, a half game behind Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (17-5 in conference). The Mustangs won, 16-10, at Cal State Northridge on Friday.
Long Beach State lost at UC Riverside, 8-2, to remain three games behind the 'Eaters, who most believe will earn their first NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons should they finish in the top two in the Big West.
But to avoid falling out of the top two, UCI must find some success in the back-loaded portion of its conference schedule. The 'Eaters face Cal State Fullerton at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. UCI visits Long Beach State in the regular-season-ending, three-game series beginning Thursday.
"The absolute worst-case scenario is that we could play ourselves out of a playoff spot," said UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, who speculated that Morales had never been hit as hard in his entire pitching career, dating back before college.
"He missed all over the [strike] zone," Gillespie said of Morales, whom pitching coach and former UCI All-American pitcher Danny Bibona has said is the best pitcher in UCI history.
UCI junior shortstop Chris Rabago was two for two to pace UCI's five-hit attack.
Junior third baseman Tyler Sparks drove an RBI double to right field to plate sophomore Grant Palmer, who opened the second inning with a single. The run gave the hosts a short-lived lead.
UCI put its leadoff hitter aboard in each of the first three innings, but stranded eight, twice as many as the Titans, who scored five in the fourth and three in the ninth.
The eight-run deficit was the second-worst margin of defeat this season for UCI, with only a 13-4 setback at Nebraska on March 15 being more lopsided.
The loss also ended a streak of nine straight Friday night wins to open a three-game series for the Anteaters, who are now 10-2 in such games.
Junior right fielder J.D. Davis drove in four runs and was one of five Titans to get two hits.
Big West Conference
Cal State Fullerton 9, UC Irvine 1
CSF 000 501 003 – 9 12 0
UCI 001 000 000 – 1 5 2
Eshelman, Gauna (8), Peitzmeier (9) and Deacon; Morales, Davis (6), Fielding (8), Sparling (9) and McClanahan. W – Eshelman, 7-3. L – Morales, 9-1. 2B – Chapman (CSF) 2, Olmeda-Barrera (CSF), Sparks (UCI), Davis (CSF), Munoz (UCI) . 3B – Davis (CSF) .