IRVINE — There was the bunt and the blast, but UC Irvine's 5-4 Big West Conference baseball victory over visiting UC Davis on Friday would not have happened without the backbone of Anteaters starting pitcher Andrew Thurman.
Thurman, who threw 73 of his 105 pitches for strikes, left the bases loaded in the seventh to keep the game deadlocked at 4-4. It was, perhaps, his best moment in a game in which he had both good and bad stretches.
The blast, a solo home run by sophomore third baseman Taylor Sparks to lead off the UCI sixth inning, had pulled the hosts (26-12, 8-5 in conference) even after the Aggies (15-24, 3-10) had twice rallied to take the lead.
The bunt was a successful safety squeeze executed by pinch-hitter Ryan Cooper, who plated the winning run with one out in the ninth. Cooper's heroics were set up when Jerry McClanahan walked to start the inning. Pinch-runner Justin Castro went to second on Scott Gottchsling's sacrifice bunt and went to third on a wild pitch issued during an intentional walk of Kris Paulino that put runners on the corners.
Cooper, who had not had a hit in his previous 24 at-bats, dating back to March 8, squared to bunt, but took the first pitch, a breaking ball by UC Davis closer Max Cordy. Cooper, who had a pinch-hit run batted in on a groundout in Tuesday's loss at San Diego State, then popped a bunt toward first base on the next pitch and a charging Nick Lynch flipped the ball home to catcher Izaak Silva, whose tag on a sliding Castro was late.
Thurman was not involved in the decision, but UCI Coach Mike Gillepsie said he battled well enough to win. Instead, the win went to reliever Mitch Merten, who walked two in the ninth, but wriggled off the hook by striking out John Williams to end the inning.
Thurman did some wriggling of his own in the aforementioned seventh, when he allowed a leadoff single, then loaded the bases with two outs by issuing a walk and hitting a batter. But Thurman, who allowed a season-worst 11 hits in 7 2/3 innings, induced a grounder to shortstop Chris Rabago, who stepped on second for an inning-ending forceout.
Thurman walked one and struck out four and one of the four runs he allowed was unearned.
"I really give him a lot of credit for battling like he did, particularly that [seventh] inning," Gillespie said of Thurman. "Because it was a rough night. His stuff was good, but this team is nine tough outs. [Davis] flared some balls for hits and it hit some balls hard for hits. I really give [Thurman] credit for hanging in there and grinding it out."
UCI scored two in the first on RBI singles by Sparks and senior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer. Sparks was two for four and is now 23 for 46 in his last 10 games, with four home runs and six RBIs. Sparks' seven dingers are one shy of the total posted by the rest of his teammates combined.
"He's really more disciplined and confident now," Gillespie said of Sparks, whose 33 RBIs lead the team. "And he has really been hot for a couple of weeks."
Rabago and Connor Spencer had two hits apiece for the 'Eaters, who were outhit, 11-8, by the Aggies.
Spencer lifted his team-leading batting average three points to .387 and he extended his hitting streak to 13 games.
UCI reliever Jimmy Litchfield induced a groundout to strand a runner at third in the UC Davis eighth.
UCI and Davis continue the three-game series Saturday at 1 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 5, UC Davis 4
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCD 012 010 000 – 4 11 1
UCI 200 101 001 – 5 8 1
Stanwyck, Cordy (8) and Silva; Thurman, Litchfield (8), Merten (9) and Shaeffer. W – Merten, 2-0. L –Cordy, 4-5. 2B – Lynch (UCD), Williams (UCD), Politi (UCD), McClanahan (UCI), Spencer (UCI). HR – Sparks (UCI).