IRVINE, Calif. — Ryan Cooper may not have a hit since March 8, but that doesn’t mean the UC Irvine coaching staff doesn’t have faith in him. Cooper pinch hit with runners on the corners with one out in the ninth inning and laid down a perfect safety squeeze.
UC Davis catcher Izaak Silva did all he could to block the plate, but Justin Castro got his foot between Silva’s legs and toe-tapped the plate to give Irvine (26-12, 8-5) a 5-4 walk-off win Friday night at Anteater Ballpark.
The Aggies (15-24, 3-10) and Anteaters traded the lead back and forth before Taylor Sparks tied the game in the sixth inning with a home run over the left field fence. Neither team scored in the seventh or eighth innings, setting up the dramatic walk-off squeeze.
Mitch Merten picked up the win in relief for Irvine. Anteaters ace Andrew Thurman looked brilliant at times and easy to hit at times. Neither he nor UC Davis starter Harry Stanwyck factored in the decision after both allowed four runs in 7 2/3 innings pitched. Only three of Thurman’s runs were earned, but he allowed 11 hits.
The Game Changer:
The final play was just great baseball. UC Davis closer Max Cordy threw a fastball up in the zone to try to induce a pop up. Cooper put down a near-perfect bunt. Castro made a great read at third base and Silva did a great job blocking the plate.
Here’s a slideshow of the final play and the ensuing celebration of the walk-off win:
UC Irvine head coach Mike Gillespie discusses the decision to go with the safety squeeze, Andrew Thurman’s performance and the maturation of Taylor Sparks. He also talks about what Irvine has to do to earn an at large berth to the NCAA Tournament:
Anteaters slugging third baseman Taylor Sparks talks about his transformation from an all-or-nothing slugger last season to a more complete hitter this season that has cut down on his strikeouts. He also discusses the importance of the “biggest game of the season:”
- Nick Lynch – 3-for-3, R, 2B, RBI, BB, HBP
- Paul Politi - 2-for-4, 2 R, 2B, RBI, BB
- Taylor Sparks - 2-for-4, 2 R, HR, 2 RBI, SB
- Chris Rabago – 2-for-4, R
- Jimmy Litchfield - 0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB
The Bottom Line:
UC Irvine had to have this game. The Anteaters are trailing in the Big West race and they have to beat the teams that are below them in the standings. Irvine head coach Mike Gillespie said UC Davis is better than their record indicates. (The Aggies have beat Stanford and took three of four from Washington.) But if they want to earn a spot in Regionals, the ‘Eaters still have to beat teams like the Aggies.
No longer is there room for error to slip up in a series or two. Whether right or wrong, Gillespie hit the nail on the head: no more than three Big West teams are going to reach the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA selection committee would rather put in the seventh or eighth team from the power conferences of the Pac-12, ACC or SEC than the fourth team from the Big West.
The Anteaters have to adopt a win-and-get-in mentality and that seems to be the message to the players. Taylor Sparks talked about how each game is the “most important game of the season” right now. Gillespie said the emphasis on winning has been increased rather than emphasizing playing well and expecting the winning to take care of itself.
Gillespie also talked about switching up the rotation to push Andrew Morales up to Saturdays, so look for a potential move next weekend. For this weekend, it will remain Matt Whitehouse on Saturday and Morales on Sunday. An even bigger boost could come on Fridays if ace Andrew Thurman can get back the consistency he displayed last season when he was able to dominate conference foes with lesser stuff.
Thurman’s repertoire has improved since last season, but he’s struggling to command it, at times leaving the ball up in the zone — something UC Davis’ hitters took advantage of in the early innings. Gillespie said the coaching staff isn’t seeing anything mechanically different with Thurman throughout his starts, but he’s just getting hit when he occasionally leaves pitches above the belt.
The Eaters also have concerns at the bottom of the lineup. Senior Scott Gottschling is batting .240, Kris Paulino is at only .175 and Mikey Duarte is hitting .246 now. Having three soft spots in the lineup is troublesome, especially when all three of them are bunched together. However, those spots were the three that moved Justin Castro to second, third and then home for the winning run on the bunt by pinch hitter Ryan Cooper (.184 on the season). While the top six hitters have been up and down, including being great at times early in the season, a little extra assistance to help turn the lineup over quicker couldn’t hurt.
Also check out the 22-shot photo gallery from Friday’s walk-off win for Irvine.