When it was over, all there was to do for the UC Irvine baseball team was to look ahead. Doing just that, however, may have helped cost the Anteaters a shot at salvaging the final game of their Big West Conference series with Cal State Fullerton on Sunday.
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer ran through a late stop sign applied by third-base coach Ben Orloff and was thrown out at the plate for the second out in the ninth inning of UCI's 4-3 loss to the Titans.
"He didn't' see it," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of the stop sign that would have left the bases loaded with one out. Instead, with runners on first and second, Fullerton closer J.D. Davis retired Jerry McClanahan to end the game and clinch a three-game series sweep.
With the loss, UCI (35-19, 15-6 in conference), which entered the series atop the Big West standings, extended its conference losing streak to five games and allowed Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (19-5 in conference), which completed a sweep of Cal State Northridge on Sunday, to clinch the conference title.
UCI enters its final conference series beginning Thursday at Long Beach State one game ahead of the Dirtbags in the battle for second place. UCI can clinch second place outright by winning two of three games at Blair Field (Thursday and Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m.). Should Long Beach sweep, it would finish second and UCI would be third. If Long Beach wins two of three, the two teams would tie for second, with Long Beach holding the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.
Most believe UCI, with an RPI of 38 as of Monday (down from 26 entering the previous week), would earn an at-large berth into an NCAA Regional if it can win its final conference series and clinch second place outright. But even a second-place tie with Long Beach State, which enters Thursday with a 47 RPI (up from 52), could put cost the Anteaters the chance to earn their first trip to the postseason since 2011.
"I challenged them and I challenged the so-called leaders," Gillespie said after his team's eighth straight loss to Cal State Fullerton, which has now defeated its Orange County rival in 10 of their last 11 games, 12 of the last 14 and 13 of the last 16. "Now, it's a matter of who wants to go to the playoffs. How tough are you? We are playing ourselves out of the playoffs and [the players] have to decide if they want to be in it or not, because it will be anything but a piece of cake [against Long Beach State]."
The Titans, who came from behind in all three games and denied junior closer Sam Moore a chance to post a save on Saturday and Sunday that would have allowed him to tie an NCAA single-season record with 24, have been tough on the 'Eaters in recent years. Fullerton has won the last five series against UCI and is 15-6 against UCI since Gillespie took over in 2008.
Moore, who had blown only one save opportunity this season entering the series, suffered a blown save on Saturday, when he allowed the tying run in the ninth inning of a game the Titans won, 2-1, in the 10th. Sunday, Moore entered the game with one out in the eighth inning with his team ahead, 3-1.
But a single, an RBI double and a two-run single allowed the Titans to saddle Moore with a loss to go with his third blown save.
UCI did not go quietly in the ninth, however, as Spencer reached on a one-out throwing error and junior third baseman Taylor Sparks was hit by a pitch. Freshman Renae Martinez followed with a pinch-hit single up the middle, but center fielder Clay Williamson threw a strike to catcher Jared Deacon, who applied the tag to a sliding Spencer to protect the lead.
The bullpen failure wasted a clutch pitching performance by senior starting pitcher Evan Brock.
After allowing a first-inning run, Brock blanked the Titans the next five innings. He allowed six hits and one run in 6 1/3 innings, striking out five and not issuing a walk.
Junior reliever Evan Manarino got the final two outs to leave the bases loaded in the seventh and gave way to Moore after issuing a one-out walk in the eighth.
UCI took a 2-1 lead in the third on run-producing singles from Spencer and Sparks, after sophomore left fielder Grant Palmer led off the inning with a double.
UCI padded the lead in the fifth, when Chris Rabago, who had singled with one out to start the rally, scored from third base on a wild pitch with two outs.
UCI loaded the bases with one out in the eighth inning, and Gillespie said a possible squeeze bunt was in the offing with No. 9 hitter Mikey Duarte at the plate. But Duarte lined the first pitch to right field for an out that was not deep enough to score the run from third. A subsequent groundout ended the threat.
"Our willingness to squeeze is absolutely no secret to [The Titans], so you have to guess with the pitchout deal," Gillespie said. "And we didn't get to [the squeeze, since Duarte was retired on the first pitch]."
McClanahan was two for four, while Palmer and Rabago were both two for five to help UCI amass 10 hits, one more than the Titans.
Fullerton third baseman Matt Chapman, was three for four Sunday and went seven for 13 in the series.