FULLERTON, Calif. — Though it is now a distant memory, Carlos Lopez was originally set to be an Irvine Anteater. When he was a sophomore in high school, Lopez committed to play for Dave Serrano at Irvine. But when Serrano took the Cal State Fullerton job, Lopez followed his head coach across town to Fullerton.
Fast forward a few years, several if you ask anyone how long it seems Lopez has been wearing a Titans uniform, and you get Lopez’s penultimate weekend of baseball against the team he once planned to play for.
On Sunday afternoon, Lopez capped a weekend of baseball Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said was “absolutely unheard of,” by crushing a three-run walk-off home run to give Fullerton (45-8, 20-4) a 7-5 victory and a three-game sweep of UC Irvine (31-20, 13-11).
The final play:
It was Lopez’s third game-winning hit of the weekend, including another walk-off home run with two outs in the ninth inning Saturday night. Irvine had scored two runs in the top half of the final frame against All-American closer Michael Lorenzen, getting the tying run on a strikeout that bounced away from catcher Chad Wallach.
A national television audience saw how tough an out Lopez can be on Friday night. In the seventh inning with the score tied 2-2, Lopez had a 14-pitch clash with reliever Mitch Merten.
“I was just trying to battle. He kept throwing good pitches,” Lopez said of his Friday at bat. “Luckily, I knew with a runner on third he couldn’t throw anything in the dirt, couldn’t really spike anything. I knew if it was around the zone, I had to touch it.”
Lopez finally won out on the 14th pitch, lining the go-ahead RBI single into right field. After not having a hit through the first six innings, Fullerton scored five runs in the seventh and rode it to a 5-2 victory.
“Carlos Lopez was spectacular,” opposing head coach Mike Gillespie said. “He’s the Player of the Planet this weekend. It was just a dramatically spectacular performance.”
The Game Changer:
While Carlos Lopez single handedly propelled Fullerton to the final victory on Saturday and Sunday, he ultimately wasn’t The Game Changer. Instead, that distinction goes to the Irvine relievers Lopez and the Titans faced.
The ‘Eaters four primary late inning relievers just plain didn’t get the job done. Entering the weekend, the combination of Jimmy Litchfield, Evan Brock, Mitch Merten and Race Parmenter had compiled a 2.34 ERA in 107 2/3 innings pitched spanning 73 appearances. In 48 games, they had given up only 28 runs.
All four were hit around by Cal State Fullerton. They gave up the lead, taking the loss in all three games. They allowed two of three inherited runners to score and combined to allow seven earned runs in only 3 2/3 innings — giving up eight hits (four extra-base hits), two hit batsmen and one walk.
Before Lopez’s ninth inning dramatics on Sunday, the Titans scored two runs with two outs in the eighth inning. Michael Lorenzen showed his opposite field pop with runners on the corners. He one-hopped the right-centerfield fence for a two-run triple, drawing Fullerton within one run and putting more pressure on the Anteaters in the final frame. A single and a walk brought Lopez to the plate with the tying and winning runs already on base.
Irvine’s quartet of backend arms saw their collective ERA rise nearly a half a run to 2.83 — a drastic rise this late in the season.
Best Defensive Play: There were a couple of nice diving plays made in the outfield Sunday afternoon. The best of those was by Austin Kingsolver, who struggled at the plate finishing the weekend 0-for-7.
But the one thing that should never go cold is your effort. You can always bring your glove and play hard. Kingsolver did just that.
In the third inning, Grant Palmer lined a shot toward the right-centerfield gap, but Kingsolver tracked the ball well. He gave up his body and laid out to make a diving catch that kept Palmer from an extra-base hit.
Best Pitch/Pitcher: Andrew Morales didn’t have his best command on Sunday. He walked five batters in his seven innings of work. But he also pitched really well, allowing only two hits — one in the first inning and one with two outs in his final inning.
As he has done all season, the six-foot, 160-pound junior college transfer mixed his pitches well and kept the Fullerton hitters off-balance. He left the game with a 5-2 lead and in line to bump his record to 11-0, but the bullpen couldn’t hold that lead. Though he gave up two runs, his ERA actually rose to 1.85. That’s how consistently good he has been all season.
“He has not had a bad performance. He’s been degrees of good to great and he was very good today. Yeah, he’s had a
Cal State Fullerton senior first baseman Carlos Lopez talks about how coach Gillespie probably never wants to see him again, nearly attending Irvine and then his weekend exploits (and yes, he does plan to tell stories about this weekend “as long as I can keep remembering it”):
After about five minutes sitting by himself in the dugout, UC Irvine head coach Mike Gillespie talked about why baseball is such a wonderful game even when it goes against you.
He also spoke about Fullerton’s ability to battle in the late innings, Lopez’s weekend, Andrew Morales’ performance and trying to bounce back:
Cal State Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook said he expected Lopez to have a good at bat, but his weekend was unheard of.
Hooky also talked about the late-inning hitting of freshman Jake Jefferies, who singled to start the ninth inning rally, and he even admitted that his team is “not bad:”
- Andrew Morales – 7 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 5 K
- Dominique Taylor – 3-for-5, 2 R, 3B
- Jeff Stephens – 2-for-4, 2 RBI
Cal State Fullerton
- Carlos Lopez – 1-for-4, R, GW HR, 3 RBI
- Richy Pedroza – 1-for-2, 3 R, 3 BB, SB
- Michael Lorenzen – 1-for-3, 3B, 3 RBI
The Bottom Line:
A walk-off loss is heartbreaking for Irvine. Back-to-back walk-off losses is devastating for the ‘Eaters. Being swept after having a no-hitter through the first six innings of Game 1 and then being walked-off twice might be the final third strike this season for the UC Irvine Anteaters.
Following the sweep, Irvine’s RPI is down to 66, according to Boyd’s World. The general cutoff for at-large berths is an RPI around 45. With four home games remaining — one against RPI 130 USC and three with RPI 72 Long Beach State, there isn’t going to be much boost even if the ‘Eaters win all four games.
They also have the issue of currently sitting in sixth place in the Big West standings. A weekend sweep of Long Beach along with Cal Poly, Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara all getting swept would push Irvine to second place, but that is highly improbable with Cal Poly and Santa Barbara playing the two teams currently sitting at the bottom of the standings.
Irvine’s collapse began after needing two walk-off wins to sweep UC Davis. During that series, I pointed out the ‘Eaters had no room for slip ups and had to adopt a win-and-get-in mentality. They didn’t heed my advice as they have gone 3-8 since. All of those games are against teams that are still fighting for a Regional berth or Regional seeding, and only one of those losses was by more than four runs. But you have to show you can win games against quality opponents.
On the other side of the diamond, the Titans were all smiles as they sat signing posters for the 100-150 fans, who lined up after Sunday’s game. In the historied Fullerton program, there has never been a team with a record equivalent with this year’s 45-8 mark through 53 games (since moving to Division I in 1975).
This Titan squad has rallied together like none other, bonding over the loss of teammate Nick Hurtado to his battle with cancer. There have been contributions up and down the lineup from the youngest freshmen (Jake Jefferies, Thomas Eshelman, Justin Garza) to the elder veterans (Carlos Lopez, Richy Pedroza, Anthony Hutting).
Rick Vanderhook has pressed all the right buttons so far this season and everything has worked. The Titans have been scrappy. They’re never out of the game and they don’t seem to ever get down…even when a rival ties it up in the ninth inning when a wild pitch keeps a game-ending strikeout from ending the game or when trailing by three runs in the final two innings.
They just keep finding ways to win and the way things have gone, they might just find their way to Omaha.