Undefeated at UC Irvine and untouchable at home, Anteaters senior pitcher Andrew Morales continued his mound mastery Friday night, blanking UC Riverside, 8-0, in the Big West Conference baseball opener at Anteater Ballpark.
Morales, who is 5-0 this season and 15-0 in his UCI career, struck out 12 to tie a career high, and allowed just four hits for his second straight complete-game shutout. He has yet to allow an earned run in 40 innings at home this season and has surrendered an earned run in only one of his seven starts (three at Nebraska).
Morales, who came with an 0.62 earned-run average, saw that dip to 0.44 after throwing 112 pitches and facing three over the minimum. In 51 1/3 innings in 2014, he has allowed 27 hits, only four for extra bases (all doubles). He has fanned 56 and walked 12.
As good as Morales was, and UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said it may have been his best outing of the season, the offense was nearly as impressive.
UCI banged out a season-high 17 hits, including at least one from all nine spots in the lineup, and scored in four different innings. The outburst saddled Highlanders starter Jacob Smigelski, who came in with a 1.26 ERA, with the loss. Smigelski allowed 14 hits and seven runs, all earned, in six innings. His ERA ballooned to 3.59.
"This was clearly our best game of the season," Gillespie said. "It's a conference game, so its most important. I told [the players in the postgame meeting] that when the score was 3-0 after six innings, before we had the add-on runs, I felt like it was our best offensive game, because we had hits down through the lineup."
Junior Taylor Sparks, playing shortstop for the first time in his UCI career due to Chris Rabago jamming his shoulder Tuesday at Cal State Bakersfield, was three for four with three runs batted in and one run. Sparks increased his team-leading RBI total to 21 and upped his batting average 35 points to .350.
Sophomore third baseman Jonathan Munoz, now hitting .440 in 25 at-bats, was three for four with two doubles and two RBIs.
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer was three for four with two runs scored. Spencer, last year's Big West batting champion, is now nine for 12 in his last three games. Despite opening the season zero for 16 and two for 23, he is batting .389.
Junior right fielder Kris Paulino was two for two with one RBI and junior catcher Jerry McClanahan was two for five with one RBI to round out the offensive standouts for the Anteaters (17-8).
But Morales, who allowed just one Highlander to reach second base, was the biggest star for the winners. Counting two dominant seasons at Rio Hondo Community College, Morales is now 36-1 as a collegian.
"Clearly he has never had a bad game for us, so with a whole run of good games, what has been his best game? Gillespie said. "To me, this might have been his best game and I think it was, because [the visitors, who came in with a .305 team batting average] really can hit. I think he shut out, and gave up four hits against a really good-hitting team. He made a really good-hitting team not look good."
UC Riverside Coach Doug Smith, whose team fell to 11-11, was also impressed.
"It was a little too much Andrew Morales," Smith said. "He was really good and it's no different than he has been all season."
Morales, ever humble, said his constant quest to improve continued to pay dividends.
"I fine-tuned some stuff over the week and I felt real good the entire [outing]," Morales said . "I was throwing all my off-speed pitches for a strike and when I command all four pitches, it's going to be a good night for me."
Morales smiled at the suggestion that his whispy black mustache, which he began growing before his two-hit shutout against Grand Canyon on March 22, had anything to do with his the first two complete games of his career.
"I can't get rid of it now," he said. "It's probably around for good."
The two teams resume the three-game series Saturday at 1 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 8, UC Riverside 0
SCORE BY INNING
UCR 000 000 000 – 0 4 1
UCI 200 100 41x – 8 17 0
Smigelski, Kron (7), Rogina (8), Lingos (8) and Ellis; Morales and McClanahan. W – Morales, 5-0. L – Smigelski, 3-3. Sv – Moore (11). 2B – Munoz (UCI) 2, Paulino (UCI) 2, Rabago (UCI).