IRVINE, Calif. — UC Irvine wanted an insurance run.
Leading 3-2, the Anteaters got a leadoff walk from Grant Palmer to start the bottom of the seventh inning. Head coach Mike Gillespie had Chris Rabago sacrifice Palmer to second base to set up preseason All-Americans Taylor Sparks and Connor Spencer, who combined for 159 hits and 85 RBI in 55 games last season.
All Sparks or Spencer needed was to knock a base hit. But instead, Sparks racked up his seventh strikeout in four games and Spencer grounded out to end the inning — and continued the Sparks/Spencer First Hit Watch that is now a combined 31 at bats deep. Two All-Americans now 0-for-31.
“They may be in a little bit of a funk, but they’ll be out of it, they’re great hitters — the best hitters on our team, by far.” Palmer said. “None of [the Irvine players] are worried about them. We know they’re going to hit.”
With Sparks and Spencer not hitting, the ‘Eaters needed someone to step up and provide a spark.
Grant Palmer has been the man for the job. On Wednesday, he was the primary catalyst behind a 3-2 UC Irvine (2-2) victory against CSU Bakersfield at Anteater Ballpark.
Batting in the leadoff spot for the first time this season, Palmer singled to left field to start the bottom of the first inning and came around to score the first run of the game on a Jerry McClanahan sacrifice fly.
In the second inning, the roles were reversed as Palmer was the one driving in the run. The sophomore smacked a 3-2 offering into right-centerfield for an RBI single.
The next inning, Irvine took advantage of a Bakersfield (3-2) mistake. Sparks hit a slow roller to second base, but trying to contend with Sparks’ speed, Davis Merzger threw off-balanced and the throw ended up in the dugout, giving Sparks second.
Sparks showed off the wheels by swiping third base and then raced home on a chopper to first base, sliding in just before Roadrunnners’ catcher Ross Hough could catch the throw and turn for the tag.
The ‘Eaters managed only one hit the remainder of the game as Bakersfield southpaw starter Taylor Aikenhead settled in, throwing seven innings, allowing only one earned run on six hits and two walks. He struck out six.
Aikenhead’s counterpart in the other dugout was just as good. In his first UC Irvine start, junior college transfer Evan Manarino allowed just one earned run in six innings, giving up six hits and striking out nine hitters.
In the sixth inning, an error put a runner on second base and a two-out RBI single by Garrett Pierce made the score 3-2. Pierce stole second and advanced to third on an errant throw, but was stranded by Manarino to keep the ‘Eaters ahead.
Sam Moore pitched the final 2.2 innings for Irvine. He allowed one hit and struck out three to save Manarino’s first Anteaters win.
Pierce and Metzger finished with two hits each for the Roadrunners. Grant Palmer reached base three times, scoring a run and driving in one as well while McClanahan had two RBI.
The Game Changer:
In baseball, there are errors that don’t go down as recorded errors. For example, with the bases loaded in the third inning, Bakersfield scored a run on a popup behind first base because John Brontsema couldn’t make a play, but because the infield fly rule was called and the batter was officially retired (though it drew a vehement argument from Bakersfield coach Bill Kernan), no error could be charged. Instead, it actually was scored an RBI groundout to second base with an unassisted putout.
But there are also errors that are conditional. To open UC Irvine’s initial at bat, Grant Palmer popped up a pitch back behind home plate. Bakersfield catcher Ross Hough discarded the mask, turned his back on the infield and camped under the ball, but on its made descent into his glove, Hough closed his glove too early and the ball popped free for a foul ball. New life for Palmer and a potential error for Hough.
If Palmer got on base, Hough would be charged. If Taylor Aikenhead could retire the batter, no error on the board.
A couple pitches later with the count full, Palmer lined a base hit into left field. After a perfectly placed bunt by Chris Rabago and a walk, Palmer scored on Jerry McClanahan‘s sacrifice fly.
The error that could have not been was the difference. It turned out to be the winning run as the Anteaters held on for a one-run victory.
Best Defensive Play: While Taylor Sparks may not be making the significant contributions with his bat that are expected, he’s still quite an athlete and can help the team in a variety of ways.
Besides using his speed to pressure the defense, Sparks also flashed his glove at third base. The junior, who was honored with an ABCA Gold Glove last season for his defensive efforts, made a couple of diving stops to his left to take away hits that looked destined to sneak through the left side.
Sparks was charged with an error Wednesday night on a throw in the dirt that skipped past the first baseman, but it was on a play that most third basemen don’t even make. Sparks got a great first step off the bat and lunged into the hole to snag the hard-hit grounder.
Best Pitch/Pitcher: Evan Manarino made his Irvine debut over the weekend and allowed six hits in three innings. On Wednesday night, he again allowed six hits, but this time it was over a six-inning span.
The Saddleback Junior College transfer was mixing four pitches, including a fastball that was only 86-87 mph and a 79 mph slider. But despite having softer stuff, Manarino attacks hitters. He aggressively goes after the first strike and then works from there.
Despite hitters currently batting .300 off him after his first two appearances, he has only allowed two earned runs in nine innings because he doesn’t allow free passes. Manarino’s mix keeps hitters off balance and that has led to a 13.0 K/9 figure.
After the game, Irvine sophomore Grant Palmer discussed his early-season success, leading the Anteaters with six hits on the season. He also talks about hitting leadoff and the faith the team has in slumping sluggers Taylor Sparks and Connor Spencer.
UC Irvine head coach Mike Gillespie blamed Sparks and Spencer’s struggles on the inherent pressure of being a highly regarded junior. He also discusses Manarino’s outing and the 3-2 victory.
“It wasn’t pretty. But there’s no bad wins. There’s some ugly ones, but no bad ones.”
- Garrett Pierce – 2-for-4, RBI
- Taylor Aikenhead – 7 IP, 6 H, 3 R (1 ER), 2 BB, 6 K
- Grant Palmer – 2-for-3, R, RBI, BB
- Jerry McClanahan – 1-for-4, 2 RBI
- Evan Manarino – 6 IP, 6 H, 3 R (1 ER), 0 BB, 9 K
- Sam Moore– 2.2 IP, H, 3 K