It has been said that hitting is about timing and pitching is about upsetting timing. Saddleback College pitcher Eric Pierce knows a little about both.

Timing led him from Orange Coast, where he redshirted last season, to Saddleback, where an injury early in the season opened a spot for him in the starting rotation.

Ever since, the freshman has been using a lethargic left-handed changeup to confound opposing hitters, who regularly lunge and flail at his off-speed offerings like a blind-folded party guest feeling for the pinata.

Pierce kept his former teammates off-balance for nine innings Saturday to help the visiting Gauchos earn a 7-3 Orange Empire Conference baseball win that widened their lead atop the conference standings.

Saddleback (19-9, 11-5 in the OEC), ranked No. 8 in Southern California, is now two games ahead of No. 5-ranked OCC (21-9, 9-7), which fell into a four-way tie for second with Cypress, Santa Ana and Riverside.

Pierce, who said he had never in his life thrown nine innings, allowed five hits, walked none and struck out six. He induced seven popups and eight groundouts to keep the Pirates at bay and improve to 3-0. It was his fifth start of the season and he has now crafted a 2.01 earned-run average in 34 2/3 innings as a starter.

Back-to-back hit batters in the fourth inning and a solo home run by OCC sophomore first baseman Chris Iriart in the seventh helped OCC score its runs, lifting Pierce's season ERA from 2.45 to 2.56. But in the other seven innings, only two Pirates reached second base and none got as far as third.

"He did a good job and we tip our cap to him," OCC Coach John Altobelli said of Pierce. "He threw strikes and kept his changeup down for the most part, other than the home run by Iriart."

The changeup, combined with a fastball that by contrast appears to get on hitters even more quickly, proved to be problematic for the Pirates, who have struggled against off-speed artists this season.

"We couldn't make any adjustments to [Pierce]," said Altobelli, who was more than familiar with Pierce's repertoire, since he practiced with the Pirates all last season. "We knew who they were going to throw, we worked on it in practice and we did a lot of things to battle it. And we still got only five hits. It's frustrating."

Altobelli, whose team has lost two straight and three of its last four, has been frustrated lately by an offense that has averaged just more than six hits in three games since Tuesday, including a 3-0 loss at Riverside on Thursday.

"We're just in a funk and we're not playing very well," Altobelli said of his team, which had lost back-to-back games only once before this season (Feb. 8 and 11). "We're in a downward spiral and we have to hopefully get out of it and get moving in the right direction going into the playoffs."

Saddleback pointed OCC in the wrong direction quickly on Saturday, lashing four consecutive hits and scoring three times in the opening inning against starting pitcher Art Vidro.

Vidro allowed hits to six of the 10 hitters he faced before being relieved by Spencer Moran, who held things in check to allow OCC to close to within 4-3 through six innings. Vidro was charged with four runs, all earned, and absorbed the loss to fall to 4-3.

But after Iriart's dinger, his state-leading sixth of the season, Saddleback's Mitch Holland connected for his first homer of the season, a solo shot in the seventh, to double the lead.

The Gauchos, who had 12 hits from nine different players, added two runs in the eighth to finalize the scoring.

"It was good to come back here and I know a bunch of the guys, so it's kind of cool," Pierce said of his first game back at OCC. "I had a good experience [at OCC] last year. I didn't really pitch as well as I should have [as a Pirate]. I live in South Orange County [he played at Dana Hills High], so I decided to go to Saddleback and see what happened. I'm stoked I did well. It was a really good game."

Sophomore leadoff hitter Cody Bruder went two for four to pace the Pirates.

Moran pitched 52/3 innings, allowing just one run on four hits, before David Wilson gave up two runs in 1/3 inning in the eighth.

OCC and Saddleback, which have split their two games this season, play the rubber game of the series Tuesday on the Gauchos' diamond at 2 p.m.