LONG BEACH — After a 3-2 victory at then-No. 5-ranked Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on May 9, the UC Irvine baseball team was 20 games better than .500, an imposing 15-1 in the Big West Conference, and, some said, a candidate to host an NCAA Regional.
Seven straight conference losses later, including Friday night's 10-1 defeat by Long Beach State at Blair Field, the Anteaters are a game behind the Dirtbags in third place and fighting for their postseason lives.
With the regular-season finale on Saturday at 2 p.m., the best the Anteaters (35-21, 15-8 in conference) can do is a tie for second place. And, since it lost the head-to-head series with Long Beach (31-24, 16-7), UCI would be the league's No. 3 team.
While some have reasoned that three, or even four teams from the Big West could or should make the 64-team NCAA field, the way the Anteaters are performing/collapsing, it may be difficult to make a case for their prospects for postseason success.
Adding to the recent trend of tumult Friday was the season-worst performance by sophomore starting pitcher Elliot Surrey. Surrey, who has had an amazing season (he was 6-3 with a 1.83 earned-run average and had surrendered more than two earned runs in only one of his first 14 starts entering Friday), allowed six runs (four earned) on seven hits in five innings. The six runs were a season-worst for the left-hander and the four earned runs tied the most he had allowed in any start. He walked three and struck out four.
Three UCI errors led to three unearned runs and the offense produced six hits, all singles, against senior starting pitcher Josh Frye, who worked eight strong innings to improve to 8-0.
UCI had eight singles in all to bring its total to 52 during the conference losing streak. The 'Eaters have scored 11 runs in seven games. That's an average of 7.4 hits and 1.6 runs per game.
With four strikeouts Friday, junior cleanup hitter Taylor Sparks, the 2013 Conference Player of the Year, and a preseason All-American, has more strikeouts (64) than hits (61) in 213 at-bats this season. He is hitting .286 overall and .253 in conference. After hitting 14 home runs combined in 2013 and in nonconference games this season, he has not homered in 23 games against Big West pitching this season.
Junior catcher Jerry McClanahan went two for two before being lifted in the bottom of the eighth. McClanahan is now four for five with two walks in the series and is 10 for 17 in his last five games (.588).
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer went two for four Friday and freshman Evan Cassolato made a diving catch in center field to account for additional UCI highlights.
The 'Eaters left 12 runners on base, including failing to score after loading the bases with one out in the fourth.
Coach Mike Gillespie, who has been known to eviscerate his players with verbal scorn, took a different approach after Friday's game.
"There is one game to play," Gillespie said. "There's nothing to be served by airing someone out. We simply have only one good choice, which is to bury this game, give it a funeral and understand that we win tomorrow, and we're in the playoffs. If we lose tomorrow, we're begging. We can argue all we want, whether we should or shouldn't be in, but we'd be begging.
"I tried to make the point that when things have gone as far south as they have, it's hard to dig deep and call upon your best competitiveness. When things are going good, it's easy. It's all rosy and we all feel good when we're going good. But we have to find a way. Hey, we're in the 57th game of the year, so it's rally and be what we can be, or let's check in our gear on Monday. That's it."
Long Beach senior first baseman Ino Patron had two runs batted in and was among four Dirtbags with two hits Friday.
Big West Conference
Long Beach State 10, UC Irvine 1
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCI 010 000 000 – 1 8 3
LBSU 310 110 22x – 10 12 0
Surrey, Sparling (6), Fielding (7) and McClanahan, Martinez (8); Frye, Friedrichs (9) and Hutting. W – Frye, 8-0. L – Surrrey, 6-4. 2B – Prigatano (LB), Hutting (LB). 3B – Patron (LB), Hill (LB).