By Barry Faulkner
3:09 AM EDT, April 13, 2013
IRVINE — Taylor Sparks has been more explosion than ignition lately for the UC Irvine baseball team's offense.
But it was perhaps his least impressive hit of late that proved to be the difference in the Anteaters' 4-3 triumph in 11 innings over visiting Cal State Northridge in the opener of a three-game Big West Conference series at Anteater Ballpark.
Sparks, who now has 12 runs batted in in his last five games, lifted a soft single just over the glove of retreating first baseman William Colantono to drive in Connor Spencer with the game-winner. It was the second RBI of the game for Sparks, who went three for six and is now 10 for 21 with 12 RBIs in his last five contests.
Spencer, who walked to open the inning and advanced to second on a wild pitch, slid safely home as the throw from right fielder Chester Pak skipped past catcher Alexis Mercado to give the Anteaters (22-8, 4-3 in conference) their third win in three extra-inning contests this season.
The win helped UCI move from a four-way tie for fourth place, into a four-way logjam for third with Northridge, UC Riverside and Long Beach State.
Cal State Fullerton edged UCSB, 4-3, on Friday, to improve to 7-0 in conference play. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is second at 5-2.
Sparks, who singled in the fifth to end a streak of his last eight hits going for extra bases, was eager to get a chance at redemption from some late-inning missteps Friday. He struck out with runners on first and second to end the ninth inning. He then helped the Matadors score in the 10th when his throwing error led to a an unearned run that broke a 2-2 tie.
But when Ronnie Shaeffer scored on a Jerry McClanahan groundout after Shaeffer doubled to open the UCI 10th to tie the score at 3-3, Sparks, who had four homers in his previous four games, was happy to get another opportunity to be the hero.
"I was itching for the chance just to get up there again," said Sparks, who now leads the team with 25 RBIs. "After [striking out in the 10th], I was disappointed in myself. I was pumped up and nervous [in the final at-bat], but I was able to get just enough barrel [on the ball] to have it fall and I was able to help my team win."
Sparks said a change in his approach has triggered the recent hot steak, which by no coincidence, has dovetailed with UCI's season-best six-game winning streak.
"I slowed down my whole hitting approach," Sparks said. "I'm keeping my weight back in my stance more and I realize now it's easier to recognize pitches. I'm just seeing the ball real well."
UCI saw its 2-0 lead erased when the visitors scored single runs in the fourth and eighth.
UCI starter Andrew Thurman struck out nine and allowed just five hits in 7 2/3 innings. But he left with no decision after allowing two runs.
Scott Gottschling went two for four and Dominique Taylor was two for five to help the Anteaters post 12 hits, five more than the Matadors, who had four of the game's six errors.
Gottschling (in right field), Taylor (in center) and Kris Paulino (in left field) all made diving catches to help limit Cal State Northridge (18-16, 4-3), which came in on a five-game winning streak.
"They wanted it bad, and they were battling just like we were," Taylor said. "But we wanted it more."
Mitch Merten, the last of four UCI pitchers, picked up the win to improve to 3-1.
The two teams resume the series on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 4, Cal State Northridge 3 (11 innings)
SCORE BY INNINGS
CSUN 000 100 010 10 – 3 7 4
UCI 101 000 000 11 – 4 12 2
Keel, Holt (6), Millam (8), Sandoval (9), Goosen-Brown (9), Rutherford (11) and Mercado; Thurman, Morales (8), Parmenter (9), Merten (11) and Schaeffer. W – Merten, 3-1. L – Rutherford, 0-1. 2B – Taylor (UCI), Sparks (UCI), Livingston (CSUN), Ferramola (CSUN), Attl (CSUN), Shaeffer (UCI), Colantono (CSUN).